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Home | Pancreas Cancer Treatment
Pancreatic Cancer

What is Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is the growth of malignant cells in the pancreas, a pear-shaped organ located just below and behind the stomach. This organ has two functions, first—releasing fluids and enzymes into the small intestine to help digestion, and second—producing hormones (mainly insulin) that are essential to the body’s use of sugar. The bad news about pancreatic cancer is that it seldom causes symptoms in the early stages so it is not detected until it has spread. Occasionally, the disease does produce symptoms that serve as an early warning sign. A tumor in the head of the pancreas can pinch off the bile duct causing jaundice—a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes - which can be removed by surgery. Otherwise, symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, loss of appetite, and a weight loss, can be mistaken for indigestion or some other minor gastrointestinal (GI) problem. 

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Screening
So far none of the current imaging techniques - CT scans, MRIs, or ultrasound - has been shown to work for pancreatic cancer screening. This cancer is slow to express itself; it doesn’t start off with a bang.  Most healthcare professionals confess that it is just difficult to identify. Up to this point medical research has been hampered by a lack of an animal model that mimics the human disease; however, scientists at Johns Hopkins are testing a zebra-fish model. No word yet on whether this model is effective.

Risk Factors
Smoking is one established risk factor. Smokers are two to three times more likely to get pancreatic cancer than those that don’t smoke cigarettes. Some studies show that diets that are high in fat may be a contributing factor. Alcoholism may be an additional risk factor.

A select number of patients with a family history of pancreatic cancer have opted for surgical removal of their pancreas after being told of pancreatic cysts growing in their own body.  Although these cysts are not cancerous at the moment, they could become malignant.  Rather than taking a chance on the cysts becoming cancerous, the patient makes the difficult decision to surgically remove the entire pancreas.  Although this will save the patient from developing pancreatic cancer, it will leave them with severe diabetes for the rest of their life, requiring multiple injections of insulin each day. The person is then referred to as a “surgical diabetic”.

Pancreas Cancer Treatment
Treatment for pancreatic cancer can be the surgical removal of the tumor if the cancer hasn’t spread to surrounding blood vessels, lymph nodes, or neighboring organs. Unfortunately, given the late diagnosis for most pancreatic cancers, fewer than 20% of the tumors can be removed surgically. When this cancer can’t be treated surgically, doctors do their best to reduce the person’s discomfort. Chemotherapy and radiation may also be part of the treatment to shrink the size of the tumor and to manage pain.



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