Hi. I'm Dr. Chee-Chee Stucky, a surgical oncologist at Mayo Clinic. In this video, we'll cover the basics of pancreatic cancer: What is it? Who gets it? What are the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment? Whether you're looking for answers for yourself or someone you love, we're here to give you the best information available. Understanding pancreatic cancer starts with understanding the pancreas. This small, fish-shaped organ sits behind the stomach, producing enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that regulate blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer typically starts in the ducts of the pancreas. Small changes in the cellular DNA result in uncontrolled multiplication and accumulation of cells in clusters called tumors. If untreated, these cancer cells can spread outside of the pancreas to other parts of the body.
Who gets it?
While anyone can get pancreatic cancer, there are certain risk factors to be aware of. Most pancreatic cancer is diagnosed after age 65. Smoking, diabetes, chronic pancreatitis or inflammation of the pancreas, family history of pancreatic cancer, and certain genetic syndromes are all known risk factors. Carrying extra weight that is unhealthy for your body may also be a contributing factor. New research has found that the specific combination of smoking, diabetes and poor diet increases the risk of pancreatic cancer the most beyond any one factor alone.
What are the symptoms?
Unfortunately, we don't usually see the signs of pancreatic cancer until it's in more advanced stages. When present, symptoms may include: Abdominal pain that radiates to the back. A loss of appetite or unintentional weight loss. Jaundice, which is the yellowing of your skin or eyes. Light colored stools. Dark colored urine. Particularly itchy skin. Diabetes that's becoming unusually difficult to control. Blood clots or fatigue.
How is it diagnosed?
If your doctors think you may have pancreatic cancer, they may recommend one or more diagnostic tests. For instance, imaging tests like an ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, or PET scan, can help your doctor see a clearer picture of your internal organs. An endoscopic ultrasound, or EUS, is when the doctor passes a tiny camera down the esophagus and into the stomach to get a close-up view of the pancreas. During the EUS, the doctor might collect a biopsy of the tissue for further testing. Sometimes pancreatic cancer can shed specific proteins called tumor markers in your blood. So your doctors may request blood tests to identify elevation of these markers, one of which is called CA 19-9. If a diagnosis is confirmed, the next step is to determine the extent or stage of the cancer. The stages are numbered one through four and may need to be determined by additional testing. Feel free to ask lots of questions during this process. Or get a second opinion to feel the most confident and empowered moving into treatment.
How is it treated?
When recommending treatment for pancreatic cancer, your doctor is considering many factors, including your overall health and personal preferences. They may recommend one or a combination of the following treatments: Chemotherapy uses drugs that release chemicals that enter the body and kill cancerous cells that may be throughout. Radiation, similarly kills the cancer cells, but with high-energy beams directed at the tumor. Surgery is used to physically remove the cancer and the immediate surrounding area. Ask your doctor if you qualify for clinical trials that test new treatments. And lastly, there is palliative care. This care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers, and other trained professionals who specialize in providing much needed relief from the pain and unpleasant symptoms of a serious illness.
Getting diagnosed with a life-threatening illness can be devastating to both the patient and their loved ones. But we have some of the following suggestions that may help patients cope: Learn about your condition. Knowledge is power and information can make you feel more confident in your treatment decisions. Find support. This can mean a support system of family and friends, a cancer support group of people going through the same experience, or qualified counselor like your therapist or religious leader. Lean on those around you when you're feeling helpless, overwhelmed, or uncertain. You may want to consider hospice care, which provides comfort and support to terminally ill patients and their loved ones. If you'd like to learn even more about pancreatic cancer, watch our other related videos or visit mayoclinic.org. We wish you well.