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Frequently asked questions about pancreatic cancer

Published On: Jul 24 2013 04:25:22 PM CDT
Cancer definition

iStock/firebrandphotography

By Pure Matters

These are some answers to frequently asked questions about pancreatic cancer.

Q: What is the pancreas?

A: The pancreas is a glandular organ, located deep in the abdomen. It is behind the stomach and in front of the spine. The pancreas is about 6 inches long and has a wide head with a body that tapers to a narrow tail. The pancreas makes enzymes and hormones. The enzymes mix with bile to help with the digestion of food, especially fats, sugars, and proteins. The pancreas makes the hormones insulin and glucagon. These hormones help the body control the level of sugar in the blood. Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.

Q: What is cancer of the pancreas?

A: Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in the pancreas. No one is entirely sure why people get this type of cancer. It is thought that normal cells undergo a series of changes, leading to permanent cell changes, and eventually cancer.

Q: What are the different types of pancreatic cancer?

A: Most cancers of the pancreas start in the ducts that carry pancreatic juices. They are called adenocarcinomas. These are less common types of pancreatic cancer.

  • Mucinous cystadenocarcinomas
  • Acinar cell carcinomas
  • Large cell carcinomas

These types are named after the way they look under the microscope. A rare type of pancreatic cancer starts in the cells of the pancreas that make insulin and other hormones. These cells are called islet cells. Cancers that begin in these cells are called islet cell cancers, or endocrine tumors of the pancreas.

Q: What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

A: Pancreatic cancer can grow inside a person's body for a long time before symptoms appear. These are the most common symptoms.

  • Indigestion
  • Yellow eyes, skin, or nails (jaundice)
  • Pain in the abdomen or back
  • Weight loss over several months that is unexpected
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • An enlarged abdomen, from a swollen gallbladder

Digestive problems often happen if the tumor blocks the release of pancreatic juices into the intestines. If this happens, people can have problems digesting fatty foods. This can cause stools to be pale, greasy, bulky, and foul smelling. The stools may also float in the toilet.

Q: What is the treatment for pancreatic cancer?

A: Doctors treat pancreatic cancer in these three ways.

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy

People may have these treatments alone or combined.

Q: What is a pancreaticoduodenectomy?

A: This is the most common type of surgery used to remove tumors from the pancreas. It is also called the Whipple procedure. The surgeon removes all of these during the procedure.

  • The head of the pancreas (the body of the pancreas may also be removed)
  • Distal common bile duct
  • Duodenum
  • Part of the stomach (possibly)
  • Gallbladder
  • Lymph nodes near the pancreas

After surgery, bile from the liver, food from the stomach, and digestive juices from the remaining part of the pancreas all enter the small intestine.

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion for a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer?

A: Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another doctor. There are many reasons to get a second opinion. These are some of the reasons.

  • The person is not comfortable with the treatment decision.
  • The type of cancer is rare.
  • There are different ways to treat the cancer.
  • The person is not able to see a cancer expert.

Q: How can someone get a second opinion?

A: These are some ways to get a second opinion.

  • Talk with a primary doctor. He or she may be able to recommend a specialist. This might include a surgeon, medical oncologist, or radiation oncologist. Sometimes these doctors work together at cancer centers or programs.
  • Ask the Cancer Information Service (800-4-CANCER) for help. It can provide treatment facilities, cancer centers, and other programs supported by the National Cancer Institute.
  • Get names of doctors from other sources. Check with a local medical society, a nearby hospital, a medical school, local cancer advocacy groups, or other people who have had pancreatic cancer.
  • Consult The Official ABMS Directory of Board Certified Medical Specialists. This book from the American Board of Medical Specialists lists doctors by state. It gives their specialty, background, and training. It is available at most public libraries or on the Internet at www.abms.org.

Pancreatic Cancer Statistics

These are 2011 statistics from the American Cancer Society’s Facts & Figures about pancreatic cancer:

  • About 44,030 people will be told they have pancreatic cancer this year.
  • The rate of pancreatic cancer in both men and women has decreased slightly over the past 15 to 25 years.
  • Nearly 90 percent of people with cancer of the pancreas are age 55 and older, and more than 70 percent are ages 65 and older.
  • African-Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than whites - the reasons for this are not clear.
  • Smokers are two to three times as likely as nonsmokers to get pancreatic cancer.
  • An estimated 37,660 Americans will die of pancreatic cancer this year, making it the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in both men and women.