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Pancreatic Cancer

What is Pancreatic Cancer ?

Pancreatic cancer (also called cancer of the pancreas) is a malignant tumour within the pancreatic gland.

Causes of Pancreatic Cancer

Although scientists to not know exactly what causes cancer of the pancreas, they are learning that some things increase a person's chance of getting this disease. But overall, estimates indicate that 40% of pancreatic cancer cases are sporadic in nature. Another 30% are related to smoking, and 20% are associated with dietary factors. Only 5-10% are hereditary in nature.

Quitting smoking reduces the risk of pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, and a number of other diseases.

Signs & Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is usually delayed because symptoms are nonspecific. Jaundice, which causes yellowing of the skin, is present in approximately 50% of patients at the time of diagnosis and may be associated with less-advanced disease. Other symptoms include weight loss, fatigue, discomfort in the abdomen, loss of appetite, and glucose intolerance.

In addition, the patient may experience pain in the abdomen and back. The pancreas may produce too much insulin, causing such symptoms as dizziness, weakness, diarrhea, chills, or muscle spasms.

The patient may not even notice the gradual onset of these relatively nonspecific symptoms. The doctor may interpret them as being caused by something else.

Diagnostic Tests

Several tests may be ordered to help diagnose the disease and determine its extent.

Percutaneous fine-needle aspiration biopsy of the pancreas may detect tumor cells, and laparotomy with ; biopsy allows a definitive diagnosis. However, a biopsy may miss relatively small or deep-seated cancerous tissue or create a pancreatic fistula. Retroperitoneal insufflation, cholangiography, scintigraphy and,particularly, barium swallow (to locate the neoplasm and detect changes in the duodenum or stomach relating to carcinoma of the head of the pancreas) also can be performed to detect the disease.

Ultrasonography helps identify a mass but not its histology. A computed tomography scan shows greater detail of the mass than ultrasonography. Magnetic resonance imaging discloses the tumor's location and size in great detail.

Angiography reveals the tumor's vascular supply. Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography also allows visualization, instillation of contrast medium, and specimen biopsy.

A secretin test reveals the absence of pancreatic enzymes and suggests pancreatic duct obstruction and tumors of the body and tail.


Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on your age and general health, the size and location of the cancer, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. You may receive one type of treatment or a combination. Generally, options include:

  • Surgery - is used when the cancer has not spread beyond the pancreas. The cancer and part of the pancreas and part of the small bowel are removed in an operation called ‘Whipple’s resection’. Some of the bile ducts, gall bladder and stomach may also be removed.
  • Radiotherapy - radiation may be used after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that may remain in the body. It may also be given as the main treatment when surgery is not possible, in combination with chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy - either tablets or injections of anti-cancer drugs may be used after surgery.
Prevention Tips
  • Quit smoking
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight

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