What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer happens when the cells of the pancreas change and grow. This creates tumors that often spread to other organs.

Your pancreas is an organ in the lower part of your abdomen. It releases digestive enzymes and hormones that regulate blood sugar. It’s made of two types of cells, each with its own function. Exocrine cells make the enzymes that help you digest your food. Endocrine cells produce hormones.

Cancer can occur in either type of pancreas cells, but they’re most common in exocrine cells.

Pancreatic cancer is rare and typically found in later stages.

Pancreatic Exocrine Cancer

Causes of pancreatic cancer

Doctors aren’t sure what causes pancreatic cancer for most people. They have found some things that increase your risk of developing the disease.

Risk factors of pancreatic cancer

You can change some of your risk factors by quitting smoking or losing weight. But many of the risk factors are out of your control.

  • Age — most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are older than 65.
  • Family history — having a family member with the disease increases your risk.
  • Pancreatitis — the chronic inflammation increases your risk.
  • Diabetes — there’s a link between diabetes and pancreatic cancer.
  • Smoking — the more and longer you smoke, the higher your risk of cancer.
  • Obesity — being overweight and inactive makes you more likely to get the disease.
  • Genetics — gene mutations can change the way your pancreas cells grow.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer rarely produces symptoms until the disease advances. Or, you might have vague symptoms. Some of the most common signs include:

  • Losing weight
  • Back or stomach pain
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Being newly diagnosed with diabetes
  • Stool changes
  • Skin rash/itching

Diagnosis of pancreatic cancer

If you have any symptoms, go see your doctor. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and give a physical exam to look for signs and symptoms. You may also have testing like:

  • Imaging tests like CT scans or MRIs for a detailed look at your pancreas and surrounding organs
  • Blood tests to see how your liver is working and to check for substances the tumor might give off
  • Biopsies to take a sample of the tumor tissue for your doctor to look at under a microscope

Treatments for pancreatic cancer

Once your doctor diagnoses the disease, they’ll want to stage the cancer. Pancreatic cancer stages depend on the size of the tumor and if it spread to other organs. When you’re creating a treatment plan, the stage of the disease affects the decision. Common treatments include:

  • Surgery — the size of the tumor and if it spread determines if your doctor can remove it.
  • Chemotherapy — this medication goes through your whole body to kill cancer cells or to control their growth.
  • Radiation — this therapy uses power beams of energy to shrink tumors and destroy cancer cells.
  • Clinical trials — these therapies are still in testing mode, if you’re accepted, it gives you a chance to try a new treatment.

Recovery from pancreatic cancer

Doctors use a five-year survival rate to explain the outlook for pancreatic cancer. This only gives you a general idea of how successful treatment has been in the past. Your recovery depends on many things, including your health and cancer stage. The earlier your doctor diagnoses pancreatic cancer, the better your chances of recovery.

Find a pancreatic cancer specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you