Doctor's Notes on Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer occurs when the cells of the pancreas start to grow abnormally. The pancreas has two main jobs in the body: to make juices that help digest food, and to make hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help control blood sugar levels. Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose early because there aren't any noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer, when symptoms of pancreatic cancer are present they resemble symptoms of many other illnesses, and because the pancreas is hidden behind other organs such as the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, spleen, and bile ducts.
When pancreatic cancer symptoms occur they may include:
- yellowing skin and eyes (jaundice),
- pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back,
- unexplained weight loss,
- light-colored stools,
- dark urine,
- loss of appetite, and
- excessive fatigue.
What Is the Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer?
If a pancreatic cancer is found at an early stage and is contained locally within or around the pancreas, surgery may be recommended, and surgery is the only potentially curative treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancers that have spread in the area around the pancreas and are not removable by surgery are usually treated with a combination of low-dose chemotherapy given simultaneously with radiation treatments to the pancreas and surrounding tissues.
Metastatic pancreatic cancer is treated with combination chemotherapy, and targeted therapies that attack cancer cells with specific genetic abnormalities may be used in some cases.
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Pancreatic Cancer vs. Pancreatitis Symptoms and SignsCancer of the pancreas and pancreatitis (acute or chronic inflammation of the pancreas) have similar symptoms like severe abdominal and/or back pain, bloating, nausea, weight loss, onset of diabetes, and depression. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer that do not occur in pancreatitis are itching, yellowing of the eyes an skin (jaundice), blood clots, and enlarged bladder. Symptoms of pancreatitis that do not occur in cancer of the pancreas include fever, sweating, vomiting, and collapse. The survival rate for pancreatic cancer is poor. Acute pancreatitis can be treated and cured if not complications occur. Damage to the pancreas due to chronic pancreatitis usually is permanent.
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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.