The pancreas is a gland behind your stomach and in front of your spine. It produces the juices that help break down food and the hormones that help control blood sugar levels. Pancreatic cancer usually begins in the cells that produce the juices.
The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:
- To make juices that help digest (break down) food.
- To make hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help control blood sugar Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.
The digestive juices are made by exocrine pancreas cells and the hormones are made by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells.
Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is hard to catch early. It doesn’t cause symptoms right away. When you do get symptoms, they are often vague or you may not notice them. They include yellowing of the skin and eyes, pain in the abdomen and back, weight loss, and fatigue. Also, because the pancreas is hidden behind other organs, healthcare providers cannot see or feel the tumors during routine exams. Doctors use a physical exam, blood tests, imaging tests, and a biopsy to diagnose it.
Because it is often found late and spreads quickly, pancreatic cancer can be hard to treat. Possible treatments include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses drugs or other substances that attack specific cancer cells with less harm to normal cells.
What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is fundamentally a disease caused by damage or “mutations” to the DNA. These DNA mutations can occur in one of three ways: they can be inherited, they can be caused by behaviors such as smoking, or they can occur by chance.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include the following:
- Being very overweight.
- Having a personal history of diabetes and chronic pancreatitis.
- Having a family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis.
- Having certain hereditary conditions, such as:
- Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) syndrome.
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer(HNPCC; Lynch syndrome).
- von Hippel-Lindau syndrome.
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.
- Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome.
- Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome.
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain, and weight loss.
Pancreatic cancer may not cause early signs or symptoms. Signs and symptoms may be caused by pancreatic cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
- Jaundice(yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
- Light-colored stools.
- Dark urine.
- Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back.
- Weight loss for no known reason.
- Loss of appetite.
- Feeling very tired.
How You Can Reduce Your Risk of Pancreatic Cancer
According to Cancer.org, there is no sure way to prevent pancreatic cancer. Some risk factors such as age, gender, race, and family history can’t be controlled, but there are things you can do that might lower your risk which include:
Watching your diet & weight: getting to and staying at a healthy weight might help lower your risk. Getting regular physical activity can help you stay at a healthy weight and may also reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer risk. Processed and red meats and sugary drinks may also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends following a healthy eating pattern that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and that limits or avoids red and processed meats, sugary drinks, and highly processed foods. For more, see the American Cancer Society Guidelines for Diet and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention.
Avoiding alcohol use: heavy alcohol use has been tied to pancreatic cancer in some studies. Heavy alcohol use can also lead to conditions such as chronic pancreatitis, which is known to increase pancreatic cancer risk. It’s best not to drink alcohol. If you do drink, you should have no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 drinks per day for men.
Quit smoking: smoking is the most important avoidable risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Quitting smoking helps lower the risk. If you smoke and want help quitting, please talk to your healthcare provider.
Limiting exposure to chemicals: avoiding workplace exposure to certain chemicals may reduce your risk for pancreatic cancer.