Cancer of the pancreas (pancreatic cancer)

What is cancer of the pancreas?

Pancreatic cancer is the development of abnormal cells in the pancreas, which results in a tumour. The pancreas makes pancreatic juice, which help to digest food in the small intestine. When pancreatic cancer spreads (metastasises) it usually travels through the lymphatic system. Cancer cells can also be carried through the bloodstream to the liver, lungs, bone or other organs.

What causes cancer of the pancreas and can it be prevented?

The precise cause is not known. Smoking is thought to be a contributing factor. A 2010 US study suggested that people who drink two or more soft drinks per week may be at an increased risk of developing cancer of the pancreas. An earlier study in 2006 found that those who consumed 400mgs of vitamin D on a daily basis reduced their risk of the disease by 43%.

What are the symptoms of cancer of the pancreas?

Cancer of the pancreas is hard to diagnose because the organ is hidden behind other organs. Also, the signs of pancreatic cancer are like many other illnesses.

  • Jaundice may occur, where the whites of the eye and skin become yellow.
  • Urine may become darker.
  • Back and abdomen pain, especially after eating.
  • Nausea, appetite loss, and weakness.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Unexplained depression.


How is it diagnosed?

  • Blood, urine and stool test may be required.

  • An ultrasound may be used, where sound waves are used to find tumours. The sound waves are converted by the ultrasound machine into a visual image of the tumour.
  • A CT scan may be ordered, which is an x-ray capable of giving detailed pictures of the pancreas.
  • An ERCP may be also be done. During this test, a flexible tube is put down the throat, through the stomach and into the small intestine. The doctor can see through the tube and inject dye into the drainage tube (duct) of the pancreas so that the area can be seen more clearly on an x-ray. During an ERCP, the doctor may also take a biopsy (remove some cells) for further testing.
  • An angiogram may be ordered, which is a special x-ray of blood vessels.

A surgical exploration of the abdomen (laparotomy) may be required, which allows the doctor to look at the abdominal organs.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Cancer of the pancreas is very hard to control. It can be cured only when it is found at an early stage, before it has spread. However, there are treatments for all patients with cancer of the pancreas, which can improve the quality of a person's life by controlling the symptoms and complications of the disease. Treatment depends on the age and sex of the patient as well as the type and size of the tumour. Three kinds of treatment are used:

  • Surgery (taking out the cancer or relieving symptoms caused by the cancer).
  • Radiation therapy (using high-dose x-rays or other high energy rays to kill cancer cells).
  • Chemotherapy (using drugs to kill cancer cells).

What does the future hold for those with cancer of the pancreas?

The earlier pancreatic cancer is detected, the more successful treatment is likely to be. However the survival rate for pancreatic cancer after five years is poor. Around 380 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in Ireland every year. The earlier the disease is detected, the more successful treatment is likely to be. However only a quarter of Irish people with pancreatic cancer can receive treatment, largely due to late diagnosis of the disease. Across Europe, the five-year survival rate from pancreatic cancer is less than one person in 20.

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