Understanding pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells develop in part of the pancreas. This may affect the normal functioning of the pancreas, including the way the exocrine or endocrine glands work.

About 70% of pancreatic cancers are located in the head of the pancreas. This can block the common bile duct, which will decrease the flow of bile and cause a build-up of bile pigment in the blood. This is known as jaundice. Cancer can also spread to nearby lymph nodes (part of the immune system), blood vessels or nerves. It may travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, such as the liver.

Pancreatic cancer is caused by abnormally functioning genes. This may be brought on by environmental or genetic risk factors, or a combination of the two. Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop pancreatic cancer. Risk factors include:

(1) getting older – it is most common in people over 65

(2) smoking – cigarette smokers are 2–3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer

(3) new onset diabetes – about 15–20% of people with pancreatic cancer have newly diagnosed diabetes

(4) chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)

(5) a family history of inherited cancer syndromes.

Early pancreatic cancers usually cause few symptoms, most of which are vague. Because signs and symptoms of most pancreatic cancer may be mistaken for less-serious digestive problems, the disease is rarely detected before it has spread to nearby tissues or distant organs via the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

Symptoms that may arise include:

(1) Significant weight loss accompanied by abdominal pain - the most likely warning signs.
(2) Vague but gradually worsening abdominal pain that may decrease when leaning forward and increase when lying down. Pain is often severe at night and may radiate to the lower back.
(3) Digestive or bowel complaints such as diarrhea, constipation, gas pains, bloating, or belching.
(4) Nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
(5) Jaundice, which is usually painless and is indicated by yellowish discoloration of the skin and eye whites, very dark urine, and light-colored stools.
(6) Sudden onset of glucose tolerance disorder, such as diabetes.
(7) Black or bloody stool, indicating bleeding from the digestive tract.
(8) Overall weakness.
(9) Enlarged liver and gallbladder.
(10) Itching.
(11) Blood clots in the legs.
(12) Mental status changes, such as a new onset of depression....