The pancreas is a small and powerful organ that sits in the abdomen below the liver and behind the lower half of the stomach. The pancreas makes juices that help your body digest food. It also makes insulin and other hormones that help control your blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive form of cancer that develops in the cells of the pancreas.

1. What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer happens when cells that aren’t normal grow and start to form tumors in the pancreas.

There are two main types of pancreatic tumors: exocrine and endocrine. The type of tumor depends on which type of cells are involved. Exocrine cells make digestive juices. Endocrine cells make insulin. Most people with pancreatic cancer have exocrine tumors, which grow faster and are more aggressive than endocrine tumors.

Treatments are more successful when cancer is found early. But in most cases, pancreatic cancer has already spread by the time it is found. Still, treatment may help you feel better, and it helps some people live longer.

2. What causes pancreatic cancer?

We don’t know at this time what causes pancreatic cancer. But we do know that changes in the body’s DNA play a role in many cancers.

3. What increases the risk of pancreatic cancer?

Your risk of getting pancreatic cancer is higher if you:

  • Smoke.
  • Have diabetes.
  • Have chronic pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas).
  • Have a family history of pancreatic cancer.
  • Have certain rare inherited conditions, such as hereditary pancreatitis or Lynch syndrome, an inherited cancer of the large intestine.

It’s important to know that obesity is a significant risk factor for pancreatic cancer.  Obesity increases risk of pancreatic cancer by about 20% and some studies show this risk increase to be as high as 50%.

4. What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Abdominal pain, sometimes radiating to the back.
  • Jaundice, which includes yellowing of the skin, often with severe itching, dark urine and light stools.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Severe fatigue.
  • New blood clots in the legs or lungs.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • New onset of diabetes.

5. How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

There are not yet any tests that work well for finding pancreatic cancer in its early stages.

If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, you may have one or more imaging tests, such as a CT scan or MRI, of the pancreas and surrounding areas.

Your doctor also may recommend a biopsy. This means taking a tissue sample from the pancreas and checking it under a microscope.

6. How is it treated?

Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are the main treatments for pancreatic cancer. Although treatment doesn’t usually cure the cancer, it may help you feel better and live longer.

If you are concerned about your cancer risk, make an appointment at ChristianaCare’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute at 302-623-4500.