The pancreas is a gland located in the lower stomach, near the liver, gall bladder, spleen, and intestines. The pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which regulates blood sugar, and it also secretes enzymes that help to break down and digest food.
The pancreas is about 6 inches in length, and has a shape like a flat pear, with a head, body, and tail.
Pancreatic cancer normally begins within the ducts that carry the pancreatic enzymes and juices out to the small intestine and the rest of the body. This condition is called adenocarcinoma. Much less often, approximately 5% of the time, pancreatic cancer will start in the hormone-producing cells within the pancreas. This is called islet cell cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is a relatively rare form of cancer, and no one is certain what its underlying causes are. However, the following are considered risk factors:
Smoking. Smoking more than doubles one’s risk of pancreatic cancer. Therefore, quitting smoking may be a way of preventing the disease.
Lack of proper exercise and/or obesity. An increased risk of pancreatic cancer has also been linked to a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight. Daily exercise, and maintaining a healthy body weight, may also help to prevent pancreatic cancer.
Dietary factors. A diet high in red meat—particularly meat that has been highly processed, preserved, charcoal broiled, or grilled—apparently increases the risk of pancreatic cancer, according to research studies. Eating more fruits,...
Pancreatic cancer usually does not cause any symptoms in its early stages. By the time symptoms usually appear, the cancer has started to spread and it is more difficult to treat.
Common symptoms include:
- weight loss
- upper abdominal pain
- back pain (radiating from the abdomen)
- loss of appetite
- jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
- dark urine
- pale-colored stool
- elevated blood sugar
- low blood sugar (from islet cell cancer)
None of these symptoms necessarily means that a patient has pancreatic cancer. All of them can be caused by a wide of conditions. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor for diagnosis.
Pancreatic cancer may be diagnosed in the following types of ways.
(Many of these procedures are also done for the purpose of staging, or measuring how far advanced the pancreatic cancer is after it has been diagnosed.)
Physical examination of the skin and the abdomen in the area of the pancreas. This includes checking for abnormal lumps, which may indicate a buildup of fluid, or ascites, which can result from the spread of cancer cells into the lymph nodes and stomach lining.
Image-Producing Procedures. There are several diagnostic tests that produce images of the pancreas and surrounding organs to detect cancer.
Laparoscopy. A laparascope is a very thin lighted tube that is inserted into the abdomen via small incisions. The laparascope carries a tiny video...
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