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What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that begins in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is a large gland organ which lies behind the stomach in the back of the abdomen. It is often described as having a head, neck, body and tail. The pancreas produces enzymes that are released into the intestines to help break down food so that nutrients can be absorbed into the body. These enzymes flow down a tube called the pancreatic duct. This part of the pancreas is called the exocrine pancreas. The pancreas also produces hormones that are released into the blood stream. One of these is insulin which regulates the amount of sugars in the blood and around the body. This part of the pancreas is called the endocrine pancreas. Pancreatic cancer can start at the head, neck, body or tail of the pancreas.

Types

Tumors formed by the exocrine cells in the pancreas are much more common than those formed by the endocrine cells.

  • Exocrine tumors: They are the most common type of pancreatic cancer. Ductal Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of exocrine tumors and can develop anywhere within the pancreas. However, they are most commonly found in the head of the pancreas. Other less common types of exocrine tumors include: Acinar Cell Carcinoma, Adenosquamous Carcinoma, Mucionous Cystadenocarcinoma, Pancreatoblastoma, and Serous Cystadenocarcinoma.

  • Endocrine Tumors: Tumors of the endocrine pancreas are much less common. They are known as islet cell tumors or neuroendocrine tumors and are divided into several sub-types: Gastrinomas (Zollinger-Ellison syndrome), Glucagonomas, Insulinomas, PPomas, Somatostatinomas, VIPomas.

  • Other tumors associated with the pancreas: Lymphomas, sarcomas, paraganglioma, rare carcinomas, metastatic cancer, tumors of the ampulla of Vater, intra-pancreatic bile duct cancer, and duodenal cancer.

Risk Factors

Having one or more risk factors does not necessarily mean that you will develop pancreatic cancer. You can also develop the disease without having any known risk factors. The following is a list of factors that may increase your probability of developing pancreatic cancer:

  • Age: The probability of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age, especially over the age of 60.

  • Race: African Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

    Obesity: Obese people are more likely to develop the disease, as well as people that have little or no physical activity. Exercise is known to lower the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

  • Chronic pancreatitis: Long-term inflammation of the pancreas is linked to pancreatic cancer, however most patients with pancreatitis never develop pancreatic cancer. This link is strongest with smokers and with people that have an inherited gene mutation.

  • Diabetes: Diabetes, especially type-2 diabetes is a risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer.

  • Family history and genetic syndromes: Inherited gene mutations passed from parent to child are a risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer. Some of these genetic syndromes that can cause the disease are a BRCA2 mutation, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, Familial pancreatitis, Lynch syndrome, Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, and familial melanoma.

  • Personal or family history of pancreatic cancer: In some cases pancreatic cancer risks are easily recognized due to inherited syndromes, and in others the gene causing the increased risk for cancer is unknown.

  • Smoking: Pancreatic cancer is more prevalent among people who smoke.

  • Cirrhosis of the liver: People with cirrhosis of the liver have an increased risk for developing pancreatic cancer.

  • H. pylori: The ulcer causing bacteria Helicobacter pylori may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Symptoms

  • Symptoms for pancreatic cancer may not be apparent until de disease has advanced. These symptoms may also come from a condition other than cancer. See your doctor if you experience any of these for a proper diagnosis. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include:

  • Upper abdominal pain that radiates to your back.

  • Jaundice or yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.

  • Blood clots.

  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss.

  • Digestive problems (cancer blocks the pancreatic juices flowing into the intestines).

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