What is the pancreas?
The pancreas is a 6-inch long organ located behind the stomach in the back of the abdomen. It is spongy and shaped somewhat like a fish, extended horizontally across the abdomen. The head of the pancreas is on the right side of the abdomen where the stomach is attached to the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum). The tail of the pancreas - its narrowest part - extends to the left side of the abdomen next to the spleen.
The pancreas contains exocrine and endocrine glands that create pancreatic juices, hormones, and insulin. Pancreatic juices, or enzymes, made by the exocrine glands are released into the intestines by way of a series of ducts in order to help digest fat, proteins, and carbohydrates. Over 95% of the pancreas is made up of exocrine glands and ducts. The endocrine cells are arranged in small clusters called islets of Langerhans, which release insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. These two hormones manage levels of sugar in the blood. When they are not working properly, the result is often diabetes.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer arises when cells in the pancreas, a glandular organ behind the stomach, begin to multiply out of control and form a mass. These cancerous cells have the ability to invade other parts of the body. There are a number of types of pancreatic cancer. The most common, pancreatic adenocarcinoma, accounts for about 85% of cases, and the term "pancreatic cancer" is sometimes used to refer only to that type. These adenocarcinomas start within the part of the pancreas which makes digestive enzymes. Several other types of cancer, which collectively represent the majority of the non-adenocarcinomas, can also arise from these cells. One to two percent of cases of pancreatic cancer are neuroendocrine tumors, which arise from the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas. These are generally less aggressive than pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
Signs and symptoms of the most common form of pancreatic cancer may include yellow skin, abdominal or back pain, unexplained weight loss, light-colored stools, dark urine and loss of appetite. There are usually no symptoms in the disease's early stages, and symptoms that are specific enough to suggest pancreatic cancer typically do not develop until the disease has reached an advanced stage. By the time of diagnosis, pancreatic cancer has often spread to other parts of the body.
Pancreatic cancer rarely occurs before the age of 40, and more than half of cases of pancreatic adenocarcinoma occur in those over 70. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include tobacco smoking, obesity, diabetes, and certain rare genetic conditions. About 25% of cases are linked to smoking, and 5–10% are linked to inherited genes.
Pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed by a combination of medical imaging techniques such as ultrasound or computed tomography, blood tests, and examination of tissue samples (biopsy). The disease is divided into stages, from early (stage I) to late (stage IV). Screening the general population has not been found to be effective.
The risk of developing pancreatic cancer is lower among non-smokers, and people who maintain a healthy weight and limit their consumption of red or processed meat. A smoker's chance of developing the disease decreases if they stop smoking, and almost returns to that of the rest of the population after 20 years. Pancreatic cancer can be treated with surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, palliative care, or a combination of these. Treatment options are partly based on the cancer stage. Surgery is the only treatment that can cure pancreatic adenocarcinoma, and may also be done to improve quality of life without the potential for cure. Pain management and medications to improve digestion are sometimes needed. Early palliative care is recommended even for those receiving treatment that aims for a cure.