(WTNH)– The pancreas is an important organ nestled deep in the abdomen that aids in digestion and regulates blood sugar levels. Cancer of the pancreas is an especially frightening form of cancer. Not only are there no good screening tests for pancreatic cancer, its progression can be silent and painless and it often can spread before detection.
Because the pancreas is located at the intersection of major blood vessels, and involves many different structures of the gastrointestinal (GI) system, if it is operable, surgery is extremely delicate and requires uncommon expertise.
Though the number of diagnoses is increasing and the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is very low, about 9%, there are reasons to be hopeful. Researchers are studying better predictive tests, identifying patients that are at higher risk for the disease, improvements in surgery (including robotics) and using genetics for targeted therapies — all with the goal of prolonging life. And some lucky patients whose cancer is discovered early enough are true success stories, thanks to their physicians and a hardy fight on the patient’s part. These patients can become disease free.
Most patients with pancreatic cancer who are deemed resectable undergo one of two types of surgery. If the cancer is in the tail or body of the pancreas, the surgery is simpler and only the body and tail of the pancreas and the spleen are removed. This is called a distal pancreatectomy. If the cancer is in the head of the pancreas, where there are multiple complex GI structures coming together, the Whipple procedure is performed.
During the Whipple procedure, the surgeon usually removes a piece of the bile duct, a piece of the small intestine, a piece of the pancreas, and sometimes a piece of the stomach and some of the surrounding lymph nodes.
“The Whipple procedure is a big operation where we basically reroute all of the major plumbing of the G.I. tract,” Dr. Schipper explains. The surgery is intricate and complex and requires a specially trained surgeon to perform this successfully.
What are Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms until it has spread. Once it has spread, symptoms may include:
- painless jaundice
- weight loss
- nausea and vomiting
- diarrhea/loose stools
- clay colored stools
- dark urine
- mid-abdominal pain going to the back
What are Types of Pancreatic Cancer?
Cancer of the exocrine cells of the pancreas occurs much more frequently than cancer of the endocrine (or islet) cells of the pancreas. In fact, about 95% of all pancreatic cancers are within the exocrine system. The report most common form of pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma, an exocrine cancer.
What are Treatments for Pancreatic Cancer?
Surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy are treatment options that may extend survival and/or relieve symptoms. However, they rarely cure the illness. Only about 20% of patients are surgical candidates, since pancreatic cancer is usually discovered only after it has spread.
What are Risks for Pancreatic Cancer?
- Smoking both tobacco and non-tobacco products
- Occupational exposures to certain chemicals
- Chronic pancreatitis
- A family history of pancreatic cancer
- Inherited conditions such as Lynch syndrome or hereditary pancreatitis
- African Americans have a higher risk
There are no official screening guidelines for pancreatic cancer. Testing is only recommended for people who are experiencing symptoms suggestive of pancreatic cancer. People who smoke, however, should be advised to stop and informed of their greatly increased risk of pancreatic cancer and other serious disease. For patients with hereditary pancreatitis , it is recommended that screening starts at age 35 . In those who have a family history of pancreatic cancer, screening may have to start at age 10.
For more information log on to https://hartfordhealthcare.org/services/cancer-care/conditions/pancreatic-cancer