Pancreatic Cancer: The Basics

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

The pancreas is a gland that makes hormones such as insulin. Hormones help your body to work. Pancreatic cancer is caused by pancreatic cells growing out of control. As the number of cells grow, they form into a tumor. 

Pancreatic cancer that has spread from the pancreas to some other part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Risks

Risks include:

  • Smoking.
  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Having high blood sugar or weighing more than you should. 
  • Working as a chemist, working with coal or gas and metal workers.

Signs of Pancreatic Cancer

Signs of pancreatic cancer start after the cancer has grown and spread to other parts of the body. Some may be:

  • Losing weight or not feeling hungry.
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes.
  • Pain in the upper part of the belly or back.
  • Feeling weak.
  • Feeling sick to your stomach and throwing up.
  • Having high blood sugar.

Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer

When your healthcare providers think you may have pancreatic cancer, they will do a full exam of your body and ask you questions about your health. They also may order tests:

  • CT.
  • Ultrasound or endoscopic ultrasound.
  • If a bile duct is blocked, you may have an endoscopic retrograde cholangiography or percutaneous trans-hepatic cholangiography.
  • Blood tests.

Staging Pancreatic Cancer

To guide treatment, pancreatic cancer is "staged." This stage is based on:

  • Size and location of the tumor.
  • Whether cancer cells are in the lymph nodes.
  • Whether cancer cells are in other parts of the body.

Stages range from stage I (smallest, most confined tumors) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, also called metastatic cancer). The stage of pancreatic cancer will guide your treatment plan.

Treatment

Often, these treatments are used: 

  • Surgery is only for patients with small tumors who are likely to do well. Surgery should be followed by chemotherapy or radiation. Some patients have chemotherapy and radiation and then have surgery if the tumor has shrunk enough. 
  • Radiation, the use of high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells, is used to keep the cancer from coming back. 
  • Chemotherapy is the use of medications to kill cancer cells that have gone to others places in the body. 

This article is a basic guide to pancreatic cancer. You can learn more about your type of pancreatic cancer and treatment by using the links below.

All About Pancreatic Cancer

Surgical Procedures: Surgery and Staging for Pancreatic Cancer

References

Alsamarrai A, Das, S.L., Windsor, J.Aa, Petrov, M.S. (2014). Factors that affect risk for pancreatic disease in the general population: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Clinics Gastroenterol Hepatology, 12, 1635-164.

American Cancer Society. Pancreatic Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreatic-cancer.html 

Anderson MA, Zolotarevsky E, Cooper KL, et al. (2012). Alcohol and tobacco lower the age of presentation in sporadic pancreatic cancer in a dose-dependent manner: a multicenter study. American Journal of Gastroenterology,107, 1730-1739.

Apte, M. V., & Wilson, J. S. (2016). Pancreatic cancer: A multipronged approach to pancreatic cancer treatment. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology13(7), 385-387.

Chuong, M. D., Springett, G. M., Freilich, J. M., Park, C. K., Weber, J. M., Mellon, E. A., ... & Shridhar, R. (2013). Stereotactic body radiation therapy for locally advanced and borderline resectable pancreatic cancer is effective and well tolerated. International Journal of Radiation Oncology* Biology* Physics86(3), 516-522.

De La Cruz, M. S., Young, A. P., & Ruffin, M. T. (2014). Diagnosis and management of pancreatic cancer. Am Fam Physician89(8), 626-632.

Garrido-Laguna, I., & Hidalgo, M. (2015). Pancreatic cancer: from state-of-the-art treatments to promising novel therapies. Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology12(6), 319-334.

Gresham, G. K., Wells, G. A., Gill, S., Cameron, C., & Jonker, D. J. (2014). Chemotherapy regimens for advanced pancreatic cancer: a systematic review and network meta-analysis. BMC Cancer14(1), 471.

Grote, T., & Gress, T. M. (2017). EUS and Its Role in Pancreatic Cancer. Pancreatic Cancer, 1-17.

Kamisawa, T., Wood, L. D., Itoi, T., & Takaori, K. (2016). Pancreatic cancer. The Lancet388(10039), 73-85.

Lin, Y., Egawa, N., & Kikuchi, S. (2016). Obesity and risk of pancreatic cancer: Epidemiologic evidence and perspective. Pancreatology16(4), S117.

Lucenteforte,E., La Vecchia, C., Silverman, D., et al.(2012).  Alcohol consumption and pancreatic cancer: a pooled analysis in the International Pancreatic Cancer Case-Control Consortium (PanC4). Annals of Oncology, 23, 374-382.

NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines, Pancreatic Cancer, 2017, retrieved from https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/pancreatic.pdf (log in required).

Neesse, A., Krug, S., Gress, T. M., Tuveson, D. A., & Michl, P. (2014). Emerging concepts in pancreatic cancer medicine: targeting the tumor stroma. OncoTargets and Therapy7, 33.

Paulson, A. S., Cao, H. S. T., Tempero, M. A., & Lowy, A. M. (2013). Therapeutic advances in pancreatic cancer. Gastroenterology144(6), 1316-1326.

Witvliet-van Nierop, J. E., Lochtenberg-Potjes, C. M., Wierdsma, N. J., Scheffer, H. J., Kazemier, G., Ottens-Oussoren, K., ... & de van der Schueren, M. A. E. (2017). Assessment of Nutritional Status, Digestion and Absorption, and Quality of Life in Patients with Locally Advanced Pancreatic Cancer. Gastroenterology Research and Practice2017.

Wolfgang, C. L., Herman, J. M., Laheru, D. A., Klein, A. P., Erdek, M. A., Fishman, E. K., & Hruban, R. H. (2013). Recent progress in pancreatic cancer. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians63(5), 318-348.

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