Educational Articles

Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is an organ that is located between the stomach and spine. It measures approximately 6 inches in length. Its 2 main functions include the production of digestive enzymes such as lipase needed for absorption of nutrients, and secretion of hormones including insulin necessary to regulate blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer is a cancerous growth of this organ. It is a very common problem, with nearly 50,000 individuals diagnosed with this illness each year in the U.S. Factors leading to pancreatic cancer may include smoking, obesity, diabetes, and chronic inflammation of pancreas.



Symptoms assocated pancreatic cancer are often non-specific, especially at an early stage. They may include fatigue, weakness, anorexia, and weight loss. As the disease progresses, there may be abdominal pain, jaundice or yellowing of the skin, nausea, and profound weight loss.


The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer often requires radiologic imaging study such as CT scan and a special endoscopic examination called ERCP that entails an endoscopy with an injection of dye into pancreatic ducts. Other tests that are often utilized in diagnosing pancreatic cancer include MRCP, endoscopic ultrasound, and needle biopsy. A tumor marker called CA19-9 may also be elevated in individuals with pancreatic cancer.



The treatment of pancreatic cancer involves surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Because pancreatic cancer often remains silent and is usually found at an advanced stage, very few pancreatic cancer can be removed surgically. Non-resectable pancreatic cancers may be treated with chemotherapy including gemcitabine, targeted therapy such as erlotinib (Tarceva), and radiation therapy. Patients with advanced cancer may also benefit from palliative treatment such as a placement of stent to relieve obstruction caused by the tumor.


The overall prognosis of patients with pancreatic cancer remains very poor. Even in surgically resectable pancreatic cancer, only 20% survive beyond 5 years. For patients with non-resectable disease, average survival is just over 6 months. It is hoped that ongoing intesive cancer research will be able to provide better outcome in the very near future.


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