Pancreatic cancer develops in the pancreas, a pear-shaped gland approximately six inches long. Located in the abdomen, between the stomach and the spine, the pancreas has two different kinds of glands, the exocrine and the endocrine. The exocrine helps with digestion; the endocrine produces hormones to balance the amount of sugar in the blood. Pancreatic cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death in the United States because it usually spreads rapidly and is not easy to detect. It develops as a result of a genetic mutation within the pancreatic cells, which causes them to grow uncontrollably and, eventually, form a tumor. The majority of tumors originate in the exocrine gland.
Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
Almost all pancreatic cancer affects those 40 and older, and it is most prevalent among those between the ages of 55 and 65. Other risk factors may include:
- Being male
- Being African-American
- Being obese
- Having chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Being diabetic
- Having certain genetic syndromes
- Having a personal or family history of pancreatic cancer
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer do not usually occur until the disease has progressed to its advanced stage. Some people may experience:
- Pain in the back or upper abdomen
- Weight loss and/or poor appetite
- Gallbladder enlargement
- Blood clot within a large vein
Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer
An early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is difficult because, in its early stages, it may be asymptomatic or have symptoms that mimic those of other diseases. Also making an early diagnosis difficult is the pancreas's location. Positioned in the back of the upper abdomen, it can rarely be felt during a physical exam. If pancreatic cancer is suspected, a series of diagnostic tests may be performed. The most common include:
- Blood tests
- CT scan
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Endoscopic ultrasound
Treatment of Pancreatic Cancer
Once diagnosed, treatment to eliminate the cancer or prevent it from spreading should begin immediately. The type of treatment depends on the stage of the disease. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer can only be cured if it is found at an early stage, before it has spread, and the entire tumor can be surgically removed. In addition to surgery, types of treatment may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted-drug use.
New methods are currently being tested to effectively treat pancreatic cancer, and improve the prognosis for those with this life-threatening disease.
To learn more about our Pancreatic Cancer Services, please contact us at (516) 627-5262 today to schedule an appointment.