Pancreatic Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant or cancerous cells grow, divide, and spread in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is a 6-inch-long spongy, tube-shaped organ located behind the stomach. The two major functions of the pancreas in the body is:

  • To produce digestive juices (enzymes) that help the intestines break down food.
  • To produce hormones including insulin that helps regulate the body’s usage of sugars and starches.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer usually go unnoticed in the early stages that is why it is described as a “silent” disease. However as the cancer grows and spreads, symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen that sometimes spreads to the back. The pain may aggravate after the person eats or lies down
  • Discoloured urine
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Blood clot in veins
  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Belly pain
  • Fatigue
  • Back pain

Causes of Pancreatic Cancer

The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is yet unknown, though some factors may be responsible including:

  • Smoking: Smoking is the main risk factor. Smokers are at least 2 times more likely to have the disease than nonsmokers.
  • Age: Age is also linked with the disease usually striking after age 45
  • Diabetes: This is also linked to pancreatic cancer since it’s a risk factor, and it can also be a symptom of the disease.

Other risks that could cause pancreatic cancer include: liver cirrhosis, obesity, lack of exercise, chronic pancreatitis, family history of pancreatic cancer, and high fat diet.

Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer

Color enhanced magnified view of pancreatic cancer cell

The challenge of this disease is detecting it early. This is because a doctor cannot feel or see a tumor during a routine exam. To help with the diagnosis and determine the most appropriate treatment, imaging tests are performed such as an ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan to assess pictures of the abdomen and determine the extent of the problem.

Treatment of Pancreatic cancer

  1. Surgery

If the cancer hasn’t spread past the pancreas, surgery can cure it. Since side effects depend on the extent of the surgery, the tumor is removed leaving as much of the normal pancreas in one piece as possible. Unfortunately, with pancreatic cancer, the cancerous cells usually have spread past the pancreas at the point of diagnosis. Surgery can still be performed, even if the tumor is too large to remove. The surgery would involve procedures to help reduce some of the symptoms.

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  1. Radiation Therapy

This treatment uses high-powered radiation to kill cancer cells. Radiation is usually performed five days a week for several weeks or months. This schedule helps to protect normal tissue by spreading out the total dose of radiation. Radiation is also being studied as a way to kill cancer cells that remain in the area after surgery. Radiation therapy can help relieve pain or digestive issues caused by large cancerous masses.

  1. Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells and prevent them from growing or multiplying. Treatment may consist of just one drug or a combination of drugs. It may be given orally or intravenously. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body. Chemotherapy is a good choice for cancer that has spread. It is also useful after surgery to kill any cancer cells left behind.

  1. Targeted Therapy

New drugs on the market have the ability to attack specific parts of the cancer cells. Targeted therapies appear to have fewer side effects than chemotherapy and are less harmful to normal cells. Targeted therapy is currently being used for treatment of pancreatic cancer.

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  1. Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is also known as biological therapy. This new anticancer treatment boosts a person’s immune system to fight disease. Immunotherapy for pancreatic cancer is being actively researched, along with the study into vaccines that support the immune system to attack cancer.

  1. Palliative Therapy

Palliative therapy is used to ease symptoms and manage pain irrespective of the stage of the disease or the need for other treatments. Palliative care aims to improve quality of life in the body, mind, and spirit. Though palliative therapies are right at the very advanced stages of the disease, they are also helpful when given with other cancer therapies to fight the disease.

Is Prevention Possible?

There’s no one certain action you can take to prevent pancreatic cancer, however you can start by avoiding some controllable risk factors.

  • Quit smoking.
  • Avoid diet high in fat.
  • Adopt a regular exercise routine, since exercise can help prevent diabetes and obesity.

Getting Support

A support system is essential to help manage the emotional and practical phases of this aggressive disease. Many avenues for support exist within the local community and beyond, both for the patient and their family and friends. These organizations exist to help navigate the daily treatment issues and the worries about the future.


Disclaimer: The content provided on is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical doctor or healthcare professional.


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