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Pancreatic cancer

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

The pancreas is a long, flat organ in your tummy, just behind the stomach, that releases enzymes that help with digestion of food. It also makes important hormones like insulin that help regulate your blood sugar. You can't usually feel it, but it sits just below the center of your chest, between the rib cage and your belly button.

Cancer of the pancreas is fairly common in the US – it's in the top 10 cancers for both males and females. Sadly, it carries serious risk, and has a low survival rate. One of the reasons for this is that symptoms are only noticed when it's fairly advanced.

There are a number of types of pancreatic cancer but the most common is an adenocarcinoma that causes over 90% of cases.

What symptoms should I look for?

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may be absent or difficult to detect since it may be asymptomatic in its early stages. The following symptoms will manifest only when the condition progresses:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Problems with digestion or other bowel changes, including abnormal stools, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Upper abdominal pain and back pain
  • Indigestion symptoms, such as feeling bloated
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sudden or unintentional weight loss
  • Jaundice - often characterized by yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, and itchy skin
  • Very high glucose levels in diabetics

Some of these symptoms, however, may be similar to another condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome, and some people may become used to them or put them down to getting older. However, if these symptoms occur more frequently, change, worsen, or do not feel normal to you, you must get medical advice from your doctor as soon as possible. This is especially the case if you show signs of jaundice (the whites of your eyes or skin turn yellow), are sick for more than 48 hours, have diarrhea lasting more than 7 days, or develop dark urine and pale colored stools (poop).

What causes pancreatic cancer?

The causes of pancreatic cancer are not well known, but there are certain factors that increase the risk. These include smoking, those aged over 75, diabetes, obesity, chronic pancreatitis, and a family member with pancreatic cancer. Some inherited cancer syndromes can cause it, although this is not common.

What will my doctor do?

If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, they will refer you urgently to a hospital team for further investigations. They may order blood tests in the meantime to check your liver and certain markers that indicate the pancreas is under stress or poorly functioning.

The specialist team will examine your abdomen, and they will order an appropriate scan – this might be an ultrasound, CT, or MRI. You may have a procedure to get a biopsy, a sample of tissue, and you might have a procedure called an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) - a combination of X-rays and a camera test via a tube passed from mouth to gut.

This will help inform the doctor of the extent and severity of the pancreatic cancer.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Treatment of pancreatic cancer depends on the location, size, type, spread, and grade of cancer, and someone's overall health.

Surgery may be offered to remove cancer, if it's detected early. Most pancreatic cancers are unfortunately not amenable to surgery.

Chemotherapy can also be used to treat early cancer, control symptoms, to reduce the size of a tumor before surgery, or reduce the spread after surgery.

Radiotherapy is sometimes, but not often, used alongside other therapies.

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to treat. Treatment options are sometimes rather limited, and in this case, supportive care may be offered to help manage and control symptoms. The specialists will talk to you about what treatment options are best.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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