Overview

What is pancreatic cancer? A Mayo Clinic expert explains

Learn more about pancreatic cancer from Mayo Clinic surgical oncologist Chee-Chee Stucky, M.D.

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.

What now?

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.

Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas — an organ in your abdomen that lies behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and produces hormones that help manage your blood sugar.

Several types of growths can occur in the pancreas, including cancerous and noncancerous tumors. The most common type of cancer that forms in the pancreas begins in the cells that line the ducts that carry digestive enzymes out of the pancreas (pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma).

Pancreatic cancer is seldom detected at its early stages when it's most curable. This is because it often doesn't cause symptoms until after it has spread to other organs.

Pancreatic cancer treatment options are chosen based on the extent of the cancer. Options may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of these.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don't occur until the disease is advanced. They may include:

  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
  • Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Itchy skin
  • New diagnosis of diabetes or existing diabetes that's becoming more difficult to control
  • Blood clots
  • Fatigue

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you experience any unexplained symptoms that worry you. Many other conditions can cause these symptoms, so your doctor may check for these conditions as well as for pancreatic cancer.

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Causes

It's not clear what causes pancreatic cancer. Doctors have identified some factors that may increase the risk of this type of cancer, including smoking and having certain inherited gene mutations.

Understanding your pancreas

Your pancreas is about 6 inches (15 centimeters) long and looks something like a pear lying on its side. It releases (secretes) hormones, including insulin, to help your body process sugar in the foods you eat. And it produces digestive juices to help your body digest food and absorb nutrients.

How pancreatic cancer forms

Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in your pancreas develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. These mutations tell the cells to grow uncontrollably and to continue living after normal cells would die. These accumulating cells can form a tumor. When left untreated, the pancreatic cancer cells can spread to nearby organs and blood vessels and to distant parts of the body.

Most pancreatic cancer begins in the cells that line the ducts of the pancreas. This type of cancer is called pancreatic adenocarcinoma or pancreatic exocrine cancer. Less frequently, cancer can form in the hormone-producing cells or the neuroendocrine cells of the pancreas. These types of cancer are called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, islet cell tumors or pancreatic endocrine cancer.

Risk factors

Factors that may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
  • Family history of genetic syndromes that can increase cancer risk, including a BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Obesity
  • Older age, as most people are diagnosed after age 65

A large study demonstrated that the combination of smoking, long-standing diabetes and a poor diet increases the risk of pancreatic cancer beyond the risk of any one of these factors alone.

Complications

As pancreatic cancer progresses, it can cause complications such as:

  • Weight loss. A number of factors may cause weight loss in people with pancreatic cancer. Weight loss might happen as the cancer consumes the body's energy. Nausea and vomiting caused by cancer treatments or a tumor pressing on your stomach may make it difficult to eat. Or your body may have difficulty processing nutrients from food because your pancreas isn't making enough digestive juices.
  • Jaundice. Pancreatic cancer that blocks the liver's bile duct can cause jaundice. Signs include yellow skin and eyes, dark-colored urine, and pale-colored stools. Jaundice usually occurs without abdominal pain.

    Your doctor may recommend that a plastic or metal tube (stent) be placed inside the bile duct to hold it open. This is done with the help of a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). During ERCP an endoscope is passed down your throat, through your stomach and into the upper part of your small intestine. A dye is then injected into the pancreatic and bile ducts through a small hollow tube (catheter) that's passed through the endoscope. Finally, images are taken of the ducts.

  • Pain. A growing tumor may press on nerves in your abdomen, causing pain that can become severe. Pain medications can help you feel more comfortable. Treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, might help slow tumor growth and provide some pain relief.

    In severe cases, your doctor might recommend a procedure to inject alcohol into the nerves that control pain in your abdomen (celiac plexus block). This procedure stops the nerves from sending pain signals to your brain.

  • Bowel obstruction. Pancreatic cancer that grows into or presses on the first part of the small intestine (duodenum) can block the flow of digested food from your stomach into your intestines.

    Your doctor may recommend that a tube (stent) be placed in your small intestine to hold it open. In some situations, it might help to have surgery to place a temporary feeding tube or to attach your stomach to a lower point in your intestines that isn't blocked by cancer.

Prevention

You may reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer if you:

  • Stop smoking. If you smoke, try to stop. Talk to your doctor about strategies to help you stop, including support groups, medications and nicotine replacement therapy. If you don't smoke, don't start.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you are at a healthy weight, work to maintain it. If you need to lose weight, aim for a slow, steady weight loss — 1 to 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kilogram) a week. Combine daily exercise with a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and whole grains with smaller portions to help you lose weight.
  • Choose a healthy diet. A diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables and whole grains may help reduce your risk of cancer.

Consider meeting with a genetic counselor if you have a family history of pancreatic cancer. He or she can review your family health history with you and determine whether you might benefit from a genetic test to understand your risk of pancreatic cancer or other cancers.

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Nov. 30, 2022

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