Cancer happens when cells divide without control or order. These cells grow together to form a tumor. They can invade and damage nearby tissues. They can also spread to other parts of the body.
It is not clear what causes changes in the cells. It is likely a combination of genes and environment.
Pancreatic cancer is more common in men and people aged 55 years old and older. Other things that raise the risk are:
- Smoking and using smokeless tobacco
- Certain genes, or family history of pancreatic cancer
- Long-term pancreatitis
- Diabetes—and certain medicines to treat it
- Certain chemicals
- Alcohol use disorder
- High-fat diet
Pancreatic cancer does not usually cause symptoms in the early stages. When symptoms occur, the cancer has often spread outside the pancreas.
Symptoms may be:
- Weight loss without trying
- Pain—in the upper belly, which may spread to the back
- Dark urine, tan stool, loose stools, or stool that floats
- Lack of hunger
- Nausea and vomiting
- Jaundice—yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may order blood and urine tests, as well as check for hidden blood in the stool.
Imaging tests check the pancreas and surrounding structures. They may include:
- Upper gastrointestinal (GI) series
- CT scan
- MRI scan
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC)
- PET scan
A biopsy may be done—a sample of pancreatic tissue will be taken and tested.
The exam and test results are used to diagnose the cancer. They are also used for staging. Staging outlines how far and fast cancer has spread.
The goal is to remove the cancer, if possible, and to ease symptoms. Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of the cancer. It may include:
- Surgery, such as:
- Whipple procedure—to remove part of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, and some tissues around it
- Total pancreatectomy—to remove the whole pancreas, part of the small intestine, part of the stomach, the bile duct, the gallbladder, spleen, and nearby lymph nodes
- Distal pancreatectomy—to remove the body and tail of the pancreas
- External or internal radiation—to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors
- Chemotherapy by mouth, injection, or IV—to kill cancer cells
- Biological therapy—medicines that help the body fight cancer
Most times, pancreatic cancer is found at a later stage. This means that surgery may not be helpful. If surgery cannot be done, then chemotherapy and radiation may be given together. This may increase survival time.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
Edits to original content made by Denver Health.
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