Pancreatic Cancer: The Basics

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: June 29, 2018

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

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