Pancreatic cancer: causes, symptoms, treatment

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most complex and difficult neoplasms to diagnose and treat. One of the tumors with the least favorable prognosis. Both due to the resistance of this type of tumor to chemotherapy treatments. Due to the almost total absence of clear symptoms and recognizable during the early stages of the disease.

This type of neoplasm can occur mainly in people (men and women indiscriminately) over the age of 50. Is often detected when the disease has already spread to other organs or when the tumor has assumed significant size.

In this article we will see what are the symptoms not to be overlooked of pancreatic cancer. We will learn about the possible risk factors and the most suitable treatments.

First of all, however, let’s remember what the pancreas is and what it is for.

What is the pancreas?

What is the pancreas

The pancreas is a gland that has the shape of an elongated pear lying on its side. Has a length of about 15-20 centimeters, is located between the stomach and the vertebral column. Ideally has a “head” (the part larger, which is located right in contact with the duodenum), a “body” and a “tail”, so it is divided into three different sections.

The pancreas performs very important tasks.

In fact, it has the function of secreting enzymes that aid in the digestion of fats, proteins and other nutrients. In this case, it is said that the organ has an exocrine function. But this particular glandular organ also has another important task. Namely that of secreting hormones (endocrine function), such as insulin and glucagon, which are essential for regulating blood sugar levels.

The identikit of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer develops when certain cells in the tissues of this organ multiply uncontrollably.

The disease is considered to be one of the malignancies with the worst prognosis. Pancreatic cancer is in fact considered the fourth cause of death in women and the sixth in men.

Several types of pancreatic cancer

Several types of pancreatic cancer

As we have learned, the pancreas is divided into three different portions. A neoplasm can therefore affect one of these areas, and can be localized. For example, in the head of the organ, an event that affects about 70% of patients with this disease.

Usually, the cancer develops in the cells that line the ducts. That carry digestive enzymes out of the pancreas, and the disease is called ‘pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma’.

In other cases, the tumor may also have neuroendocrine origin, i.e. It can be localized in the cells of the islets of Langerhans, structures that have the task of secreting hormones. Pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer usually has a better prognosis regarding the chances of survival.

How long does it take for a pancreatic tumor to grow

Contrary to popular belief, the disease actually develops very slowly. The tumor can take up to 10-20 years to grow.

This would suggest the existence of a very wide time window for screening the disease. However, due to the symptoms that are often difficult to identify, in most cases the neoplasm is identified at a very advanced stage.

Pancreatic cancer: causes

It is difficult to establish what the exact causes of developing pancreatic cancer. However many studies and analyzes have revealed the existence of a number of risk factors that could increase the chances of developing this condition.

In particular, the following risk of pancreatic cancer:

Smoking habit: Smokers have been observed to have a double or triple risk of developing the disease compared to non-smokers

Unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle

Belong to the age group ranging from 50 to 80 years

Presence of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and genetic conditions. Such as the BRCA2 gene mutation or von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, a rare disease of genetic origin

Excessive intake of alcohol and coffee

A condition of obesity, especially in people where fat is localized in the abdominal area

Previous family history of pancreatic, breast or colon cancer

Pancreatitis, or chronic inflammation of the pancreas

Diet too rich in fats and proteins of animal origin.

Pancreatic cancer: symptoms not to be overlooked

Pancreatic cancer: causes, symptoms, treatment

What makes this particular neoplasm so difficult to treat. Is the fact that the initial symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often non-specific or even non-existent.

In the early stages, the tumor may therefore not involve any symptoms. Instead, these can occur when the disease spreads to other nearby organs or located in more distant areas of the body. The course of pancreatic cancer is in fact characterized by an aggressive spread of cancer cells. To nearby lymph nodes and organs, such as the stomach, liver and lungs.

It is for this reason that the diagnosis is almost always late. A factor that makes the possibilities of treatment even more difficult.

The most obvious symptoms may occur when the cancer has already spread. To other organs or has caused the bile ducts to be blocked. It should be noted, however: That having one or more of the following symptoms does not necessarily mean that there is a pancreatic tumor. Many other health conditions can have the same signs and symptoms.

Pancreatic cancer signals should not be underestimated:

Unexplained weight loss, a more common symptom when the tumor compresses the stomach

Loss of appetite

Pain in the upper belly that radiates to the back and tends to get worse when you lie down


Jaundice, which is a yellowish discoloration of the eyes and skin with dark colored urine

Light or greasy stools (they can appear greasy and you may see them floating in the toilet)

Skin itching


Nausea or vomiting

Fever and chills


Patients with pancreatic cancer and diabetes

About 10-20% of patients with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes rapidly and inexplicably. The symptom must always be taken seriously, especially by those who are not familiar with the disease.

If you notice one or more of these symptoms, or if you experience any unexplained complaints that worry you. We recommend that you talk to your doctor.

Getting diagnosed

During the visit, the doctor will perform a series of maneuvers and palpations in order to assess the state of health. The presence of any changes in the area that includes the pancreas, stomach, spleen and liver.

If he deems it appropriate, the doctor will also advise you to undergo more in-depth checks or perform some diagnostic tests. Starting with blood tests, necessary to identify any increase in levels of the CA 19-9 protein. A protein that found on the surface of some cancer cells. If this should present altered values, then we will proceed with further diagnostic investigations.

Other important tests may also be performed in the diagnosis process. Such as computed tomography (necessary to identify the possible presence and extension of the tumor), as well as an ultrasound of the abdomen and stomach.

Pancreatic cancer treatment

Once the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is confirmed, it will be necessary to establish the most appropriate treatments. The disease is often treated with an approach that involves radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, often employed at the same time.

Only in a small number of patients the disease is identified early. When the tumor has not yet affected the other organs and it is possible to remove the neoplasm with a fair chance of success.

Patients are often advised to go to a center of excellence to treat pancreatic cancer.

Surgery (which can be followed or preceded by chemotherapy treatments) will depend on the location of the tumor. When the neoplasm affects the head of the organ, a duodenocephalopancreatectomy (ie the removal of the head of the pancreas. Duodenum, the last part of the stomach and the biliary tract) can be carried out.

If the tumor involves the body and tail of the organ, these portions of the pancreas and spleen will be removed.

In inoperable tumors, the only treatment option is chemotherapy. However, trials are underway on some drugs capable of optimizing the action of the immune system against cancer. If successful, these therapies could extend the life expectancy of patients.

Pancreatic cancer: survival and risk factors

The disease has a survival rate at 5 and 10 years from diagnosis of 8 to 10% respectively. Only in a small 7% of cases the disease is diagnosed at an early stage, and can therefore be treated with potentially positive outcomes.

In most cases, however, the tumor is identified when it is already in a very advanced stage and, therefore, more difficult to cure.

How to prevent pancreatic cancer?

As always, in order to prevent a disease it is necessary to know the causes or, at least, the potential risk factors. Based on what we have learned, for example, cigarette smoking is considered a habit that increases the risk of developing the disease, so it will be very important to quit smoking to protect your health.

To prevent pancreatic cancer, you will also need to lead a healthy lifestyle and eat a healthy diet, including fruits, grains and vegetables every day.

Anyone who has had other types of cancer before (or someone who is familiar with pancreatic cancer) should have routine checkups regularly, especially once they are over 50 years of age.

Information about pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, accounting for about 3 percent of all cancers in the United States. However, it is one of the deadliest types of cancer, with a five-year survival rate of just 6 percent.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is the world’s leading professional organization for doctors who treat cancer. ASCO’s more than 35,000 members are united by a common commitment to conquering cancer through research, education, and promotion of high-quality patient care.

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Vogue Health Team


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