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Pancreatic Cancer: What You Need To Know

Pancreatic CancerNovember is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month, so it’s a good time to learn about the nature of the disease and what treatments are available. Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive cancer that originates just behind the stomach in the pancreas. It is the fourth deadliest cancer because it can spread long before being detected.

Representing a little more than 3% of all new cancer cases in the United States, pancreatic cancer is more common with increasing age and somewhat more common in men than in women. The average survival time for those with pancreatic cancer is short, in part because it is difficult to detect early. There is no routine screening test for pancreatic cancer.

The pancreas is a small organ that produces substances called enzymes, which break down food, and hormones, which help with digestion and control the amount of sugar in the blood. There are two types of pancreatic cancer tumors: pancreatic adenocarcinoma and pancreatic neuroendocrine.

The treatment for each type varies. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma tumors are much more common; nearly 54,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with them each year, or about one in every 62 adults. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are less common but are being seen more often.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include but are not limited to:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Personal history of diabetes or chronic pancreatitis
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis
  • Having certain hereditary conditions such as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome (HBOC) or familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome

Pancreatic cancer doesn’t always cause early signs or symptoms, though the following conditions may be indicators:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Light-colored stools (clay-colored)
  • Dark urine (like Coca-Cola)
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue

Diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for many reasons. Easily detectable signs or symptoms usually are not present during the early stages of the disease. Even when noticeable, those symptoms often are similar, if not identical, to symptoms that indicate other conditions. Also, examining the pancreas is not easy because it is located deep in the belly behind the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, spleen, and bile ducts. Pancreatic cancer usually is diagnosed with tests and procedures that make pictures of the pancreas and the area around it.

In order to plan treatment, it is important to know the stage of the disease and whether or not the pancreatic cancer tumor can be removed by surgery. The stage of the pancreatic cancer at diagnosis, which refers to the extent of the cancer in the body, determines treatment options and has a strong influence on the length of survival.

Treatment

Treating pancreatic cancer tumors is a complex process, but in some cases the condition can be cured. Patients who choose UAB Medicine for their gastrointestinal (GI) cancer care benefit from experienced specialists, the most advanced technology, and – in some cases – medications and other treatments being evaluated in clinical research trials that are not available at other medical centers. These resources are combined through UAB Medicine’s Pancreatobiliary Disease Center, which provides cutting-edge care for pancreatic, bile duct, and gallbladder cancers; pancreatic cysts; pancreatitis; bile duct injuries; and complex benign (non-cancerous) diseases of the pancreas and bile duct.

UAB Medicine is well-equipped to diagnose and manage pancreatobiliary disorders or consult with the patient’s current providers as part of an ongoing care plan. Care is provided by an outstanding team that includes surgeons, diagnostic and interventional radiologists, medical and radiation oncologists, gastroenterologists, critical care intensivists, nurses, genetic counselors, and other specialists. A wide range of treatment options includes minimally invasive surgical, endoscopic, and radiologic techniques, as well as access to integrative medicine and supportive therapy.

Click here to learn more about pancreatic cancer treatments, related treatments, clinical trials, and details about the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. To contact the Pancreatobiliary Disease Center, please call (833) UAB-4PDC (4732).