Pancreatic Cancer: Risk Factors, Symptoms, and Treatments

Pancreatic cancer refers to the cancer of the pancreas. It is seldom detected in the early stages and may spread to nearby organs before any diagnosis can happen. Most cases are detected amongst people above the age of 65 years. Early diagnosis is the key to the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

The factors causing pancreatic cancer can be hard to define. This type of cancer often develops when the DNA in the pancreatic cells mutate and grow uncontrollably. Most cases of pancreatic cancer originate in the cells lining the pancreatic ducts.

1. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer
Some of the factors that could increase a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Diabetes
  • Chronic inflammation of the pancreas
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Family history of genetic issues such as the presence of a BRCA2 gene mutation

2. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer
In many cases, the signs of pancreatic cancer do not become evident until the disease reaches an advanced stage. These signs can include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Pain in the upper abdomen and back
  • Depression
  • Blood clots
  • Fatigue
  • Yellowing of the skin
  • Diabetes

3. Treatments for pancreatic cancer
There are many different types of treatments for pancreatic cancer. The best form of treatment for a patient depends on factors such as the location of the tumor, the stage it is diagnosed at, the patient’s overall health and personal preferences. If diagnosed at an early stage, the goal of treatment is to cure the cancer. However, if it is diagnosed at a later stage, the treatment aims at preventing the cancer from growing and improving the patient’s quality of life. Surgery may be used to remove the tumor if it is limited to the pancreas and has not affected the neighboring blood vessels as yet. There are three main types of surgeries that may be used to treat pancreatic cancer:

  • Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy): This surgery may be performed to remove tumors in the head of the pancreas. It involves removing the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, part of the bile duct, and part of the small intestines. In some cases, part of the stomach and nearby lymph nodes may also be removed.
  • Distal pancreatectomy: This surgery is used to treat pancreatic cancer detected in the body and tail of the pancreas. It involves the removal of these parts of the pancreas and in some cases, the spleen.
  • Total pancreatectomy: This surgery involves the removal of the entire organ.

Other treatments for pancreatic cancer include:

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is typically used as one of the treatments for pancreatic cancer that has spread from the pancreas to the nearby organs. It may be prescribed before surgery to reduce the size of the tumor or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Radiation therapy: Radiation involves destroying cancer cells by directing high energy beans at the tumor. Like chemotherapy, it may be given before or after surgery. Radiation may also be given during surgery. In many cases, chemotherapy and radiation are given together.

Supportive (palliative) care for pancreatic cancer: Palliative care focuses on relieving symptoms and making the patient more comfortable. This is usually advised in advanced cases of pancreatic cancer when other forms of treatment are unable to cure the condition.