Cancer of the pancreas is one of the most debilitating conditions I have come across. It has a very high mortality rate, with only about 11% of individuals diagnosed with it surviving up to 5 years. The high mortality rate is because it’s difficult to pick up in the early stages and often diagnosed late when it has already spread.
The most common type of pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma which begins in the cells that line the pancreas. Less commonly it can also affect the cells of the pancreas that are responsible for production of hormones. This accounts for less than 10% of the causes of pancreatic cancers.
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer manifest themselves when the cancer has already spread and is affecting other abdominal organs, unfortunately there are no early features. Unlike other cancers such as prostate and cervical cancer there is also no reliable screening tests for cancer of the pancreas.
Some symptoms which may be suggestive of pancreatic cancer include; yellowing of the eyes and skin, which is referred to as jaundice. This shows that there is blockage of the bile ducts or pancreatic duct. These individuals often have very itchy skin which is a result of accumulation of bile salts in the body. They may be dark colored urine and very pale stools. They may also be abdominal pains which is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, bloating and very poor appetite. As the disease progress there is very severe loss of weight and often these individuals are very thin. Some individuals may also develop a new onset of diabetes as one of the presenting features.
Some of the risks factors of developing pancreatic cancers include being male and a genetic predisposition. Pancreatic cancer is more common in men than women. Other risk factors include obesity, cigarette smoking, diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, and exposure to certain chemicals.
When suspected the diagnosis of this condition can be made by doing certain blood tests and advanced imaging of the abdomen with either a CT scan or an MRI. The imaging also helps to stage the cancer and decide of options for therapy. When the cancer is just localized to the pancreas it can be removed by surgery. In cases whereby the cancer has already spread to distant organs surgery is not a viable option. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be given to kill the cancers cells. However, as I already alluded this condition has a very high mortality rate and often the treatment is not very successful.