Pancreatic Cancer

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer happens when normal cells in the pancreas change into abnormal cells and grow out of control. The pancreas is an organ that makes hormones and juices that help the body break down food.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Pain —People can have pain that spreads from their stomach around to their back. The pain can come and go, and it can get worse after eating.
  • Weight loss — People might not feel hungry, or might feel full after eating very little.
  • Diarrhea — Bowel movements can look greasy or float in the toilet bowl.
  • Yellowing of the skin, called jaundice — Both the skin and the white part of the eyes can turn yellow. Jaundice can also cause your bowel movements to look gray instead of brown.

These symptoms can also be caused by conditions that are not pancreatic cancer. But if you have these symptoms, tell your doctor or nurse about them.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Yes. If your doctor suspects you have pancreatic cancer, he or she will order one or more tests. These can include:

  • Blood tests
  • Ultrasound, CT scan, or other imaging tests — These tests create pictures of the inside of the body and can show abnormal growths.
  • Biopsy — A doctor will take a small sample of tissue from the pancreas. Then another doctor will look at the sample under a microscope to check for cancer.

What is cancer staging?

Cancer staging is a way in which doctors find out how far a cancer has spread.
The right treatment for you will depend a lot on the stage of your cancer. Your treatment will also depend on your age and other medical problems.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

People with pancreatic cancer may be offered one or more of the following treatments:

  • Surgery – Pancreatic cancer can sometimes be treated with surgery to remove the cancer. Before surgery, a doctor might do a procedure called “laparoscopy”. In a laparoscopy, a doctor will make small cuts in the belly. He or she will put a thin tube with a camera on it inside the belly to check the size and location of the cancer.
  • Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is the term doctors use to describe a group of medicines that kill cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy – Radiation kills cancer cells.

Pancreatic cancer can sometimes be cured with treatment. This is most likely in people whose cancer is found at an early stage. Even if your pancreatic cancer cannot be cured, your doctor can treat your symptoms. For example, he or she can prescribe medicine to reduce your pain.

What happens after treatment?

Following treatment, you will be checked every so often to see if the cancer comes back. Follow up tests usually include exams, blood tests, and imaging tests. If the cancer comes back after treatment, you might have chemotherapy or radiation therapy. You might also get pain medicine or other treatments to help with pain.

What else should I do?

It is important to follow all your doctors’ instructions about visits and tests. It’s also important to talk to your doctor about any side effects or problems you have during treatment.

Getting treated for pancreatic cancer involves making many choices, such as which treatment to have.

Always let your doctors and nurses know how you feel about a treatment. Any time you are offered a treatment, ask:

  • What are the benefits of this treatment? Is it likely to help me live longer? Will it reduce or prevent symptoms?
  • What are the downsides to this treatment?
  • Are there other options besides this treatment?
  • What happens if I do not have this treatment?