Situated in the upper half of the abdomen, the pancreas is part of the digestive system.
- It produces a fluid that helps to digest food (pancreatic juice) and a hormone that enables the body to use sugars and store fats (insulin).
- Like a dog, it’s sections are divided in to a head, body and tail.
- Pancreatic cancer is not common and is rare in people below the age of 50. The most common type of pancreatic cancer is called adenocarcinoma.
What causes pancreatic cancer?
The causes of pancreatic cancer is unknown and like other cancers, cancer of the pancreas is not infectious and can’t be passed on to other people.
There are factors that may increase a person’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer:
- Age: About 6 in 10 are diagnosed in people over 70. Some of the rarer types, such as neuroendocrine and papillary cancer, may affect people in their 20’s.
- Inflammation of the pancreas.
- Diet: Consuming large amounts of fat, sugar, red or processed meat may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
- Diabetes: Although the vast majority of people with diabetes won’t develop pancreatic cancer.
- Genetic risk: Up to 10 out of every 100 cases (10%) of cancer of the pancreas might be due to inheriting a faulty gene.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
- Pains in the upper abdomen.
- Weight loss.
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, itchy skin, dark yellow urine, and pale bowel).
Some people may have only one of these symptoms.
TIP: Remember, most pain in the abdomen is not caused by cancer of the pancreas, but you can arrange to see your doctor if you are worried.
How is it diagnosed?
It can be difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer as the symptoms may be vague or caused by other conditions. However, a GP will normally look at the eyes and the colour of the patients skin to detect any jaundice and test their urine for bile .
More tests may be required. These may include:
- Blood tests
- CT scan (computerised tomography): a series of x-rays that builds up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body.
- Ultrasound: uses sound waves to look at organs such as the pancreas and liver.
- MRI scan: uses magnetic fields to build up a series of cross-sectional pictures of the body.
- ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangio pancreatography): a thin tube (endoscope) is passed through the mouth and stomach to take an x-ray.
- EUS (endoscopic ultrasound): – sometimes used instead of an ERCP.
- Biopsy: some cells are removed from the abnormal area and examined under a microscope.
- Laparoscopy: a small operation done under general anaesthetic to see whether further surgery will be possible.
If the results of the test show pancreatic cancer, the patient will be referred to a specialist.
Pancreatic cancer is divided into four stages:
- Small and localised (stage one).
- Spread into surrounding structures (stages two or three).
- Spread into other parts of the body (stage four).
If the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body this is known as secondary cancer (or metastatic cancer).
How is it treated?
A team of doctors and other staff at the hospital will plan treatment. It will depend on the size of the tumour and where it is. The patient may be treated by an oncologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with chemotherapy) and a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with radiation).
Treatment may involve:
Most people have chemotherapy to shrink to size of the tumour and to get rid of any cancer cells around the body. This is usually followed with surgery to remove the tumour. More chemotherapy and radiotherapy usually follows.
Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer
This treatment is often given to people with pancreatic cancer to shrink the tumour prior to surgery. This means that the surgery will be less invasive. Often chemo starts again after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells and stop them from spreading.
This is called adjunct chemotherapy. For more information go to our chemotherapy fact sheet.
Surgery for pancreatic cancer
The aim of surgery is to remove the tumour, and this is the most effective treatment in early stage pancreatic cancer.
Depending on where the cancer is, and how much of the pancreas is involved, all, or part of the pancreas may need to be removed during surgery.
- Pancreatectomy: Removal of the whole pancreas.
- Distal Pancreatectomy: Removal of the lower end (body and tail) of the pancrea.
- Pancreatoduodenectomy: Removal of the head of the pancreas and surrounding intestine.
- Bypass surgery: Treating either the onset of jaundice and blockages in lower abdomen as a result of the tumour.
For more information go to our surgery fact sheet.
Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer
Radiotherapy for cancer of the pancreas is still at experimental stage and is used less often than either surgery or chemotherapy.
For more information go to our radiotherapy fact sheet.