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8 Common Questions About Pancreatic Cancer

November 12, 2022

What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

Like many questions about cancer, the specific cause is unknown. Cancer results when your DNA changes in such a way that certain genes, which are called oncogenes, allow tumors to form. Alternatively, the change could result in tumor suppressor genes going inactive. Although some people are born with these mutations, most acquire them from external factors.

What Are the Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer?

The most common risk factor is age. The average age of diagnosis is 70 years old, and cases in people below age 45 are rare. Smoking is another major factor as 25% of all cases come from smokers. Likewise, obesity and extra weight along the waistline can lead to this cancer. Type 2 diabetes is also a common factor. Finally, people with a genetic predisposition to pancreatitis, breast cancer, colorectal cancer or certain types of melanoma should be vigilant.

What Are Some Good Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Methods?

There are no definite tips on how to avoid pancreatic cancer, but some risk factors may be reduced. The most important step you can take in pancreatic cancer prevention is to avoid tobacco. A good diet can also reduce your risk. Avoid processed meats, reduce your red meat intake and avoid sugary drinks. If you’re in the metalworking or dry cleaning trades, then try to limit your exposure to certain chemicals.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?

Unfortunately, there are no symptoms of early-stage pancreatic cancer. By the time symptoms appear, 50% of cases have already metastasized to other parts of the body. For the same reason, there are far fewer cancer survivors than there are for other varieties. Even so, there are signs to be aware of. The most common sign is jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin caused by an excess of bile. Other signs include abdominal pain, unusual weight loss, collapse of appetite, nausea, vomiting, gallbladder enlargement, blood clots and even unexpected diabetes.

How Is This Cancer Diagnosed?

Your doctor will start by asking about your family history and risk factors. Your skin and eyes will be checked for jaundice, and your gallbladder and liver will be checked for swelling. If abnormalities are found, your doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist for further tests. 

A variety of imaging tests can be used. CT scans are common because the pancreas shows up quite clearly. If the scan shows something unusual, then a test called a cholangiopancreatography may be performed. This is a test that takes a look at your pancreatic and bile ducts to see if they’re blocked, which can answer several questions about the cancer if it’s there. 

Classic blood tests to find cancerous cells are common methods, and you may undergo a biopsy as well. PET scans, which involve ingesting slightly radioactive sugars that latch on to cancer cells, can also help to detect pancreatic cancer.

What Are the Stages of This Variety of Cancer?

  • Stage 0 is known as carcinoma in situ, which means it’s only in the layers of pancreatic duct cells. 
  • Stage I(A) means that there’s a tumor no bigger than two centimeters across in your pancreas.
  • Stage I(B) means the tumor is between 2-4 centimeters in size but hasn’t spread.
  • Stage II(A) means the tumor is larger than four centimeters but hasn’t reached any other lymph nodes. If it has reached up to three lymph nodes, it will be diagnosed as Stage II(B) regardless of tumor size.
  • Stage III means that the cancer has spread to four or more lymph nodes or that it’s now outside your pancreas and growing into major blood vessels.
  • Finally, Stage IV is a fully metastasized cancer with tumors appearing in multiple sites on your body. 

What Options Are There for Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer?

If your tumor is entirely in the pancreas, then tumor removal surgery may take place. Sometimes, it can be done without removing parts of the pancreas, but it’s more likely that either the organ or a part of it will be removed. Other treatments for pancreatic cancer include chemotherapy, radiation and targeted therapy. These are more likely to be used for larger cancers that can’t be surgically removed. You may also be prescribed pain medication for dealing with symptoms. If it has spread to the liver, an oncologist may advise ablation or embolization, which can destroy the tumor without surgery.

What Happens After Treatment?

Once treatment is finished, you’ll still need to see your doctor every three to six months for tests to make sure it doesn’t return. Sometimes, you may need to come back for more treatments. Either way, it’s possible to join the ranks of cancer survivors.