Pancreatic Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Risk Factors, and Treatment

Cancer of the pancreas is one of the more deadly forms of the disease – the American Cancer Society estimates that in 2018, about 55,440-people will be diagnosed in the U.S., and of that number, 44,300 aren’t expected to survive.

However, pancreatic cancer only accounts for about 3-percent of all cancers in the country, adds the source. Like all cancers, finding it as early as possible is always the best scenario to start treating it, so here are 12 things to know about the disease to recognize the signs…

1. Defining Pancreatic Cancer

Not surprisingly, pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas, which is responsible for enzymes that help break down foods and manage blood sugar levels.

The Mayo Clinic says pancreatic cancer is a form that spreads rather quickly to nearby organs, and is seldom detected in its earliest stages, which is why the clinic suggests getting screened if you have a family history of the disease or pancreatic cysts.

2. How The Disease Forms

The Mayo Clinic explains that pancreatic cancer is the result of mutations of the DNA of pancreatic cells, and in short, too many cells are formed. “These mutations cause cells to grow uncontrollably and to continue living after normal cells would die,” it explains.

The source says most cases of pancreatic cancer begin in the cells that line the ducts in the organ. The excess cells develop a tumor, and left untreated, the cancer can spread to organs and blood vessels, it adds.

3. Causes of Pancreatic Cancer

WebMD says the exact cause of pancreatic cancer is still unknown, but confirms it’s a result of pancreatic cells dividing and spreading “uncontrollably” and resulting in a tumor.

While there isn’t a pinpointed reason why some people develop pancreatic cancer, there are a number of risk factors that can contribute to developing the disease, which we’ll go to later.

4. Types of Pancreatic Cancer

WebMD also notes there’s actually more than 1-type of pancreatic cancer, depending on where in the pancreas the disease starts. In the case of exocrine pancreatic cancer, which itself has subtypes, the source says 95-percent of the cases are from pancreatic adenocarcinoma – starting in the part of the organ that produces enzymes.

The source says the other type is called endocrine pancreatic cancer, which are cancerous tumors arising from cells that produce hormones that are released directly into the bloodstream. This form of pancreatic cancer is not common, it adds.

5. Early Symptoms are Rare

The symptoms of this deadly disease often don’t present themselves until the disease has advanced. WebMD says the symptoms may vary depending on the location of the cancer.

In some rare cases, doctors might get an earlier glimpse at pancreatic cancer and be able to diagnose it more quickly due to dark urine, light-colored stool, or jaundice, it adds. “Unfortunately, researchers have been unable to identify any predictable pattern,” it adds.

6. Symptoms of Rare Forms

WebMD says islet cell tumors, also called neuroendocrine tumors, can produce some unusual symptoms. This type of tumor only accounts for about 5-percent of all pancreatic tumor cases, and can produce signs including abdominal pain, weight loss and nausea.

However, hormones released from an islet cell tumor can result in rare symptoms including excess of the hormone that regulates glucose in the blood (leading to low blood sugar), diarrhea, excessive thirst, frequent urination, stomach ulcers, as well as facial flushing.

7. More Common Symptoms

Symptoms that are more confined to the pancreas include jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin from bile blockage), upper abdominal pain (that radiates to your back), as well as bloating, nausea, and vomiting.

As the cancer “grows and spreads,” the cancer can present symptoms in your entire body, adds WebMD. These kinds of symptoms include unexplained weight loss, general feeling of malaise, loss of appetite, and elevated blood sugars (because in some cases, pancreatic cancer blocks the body’s ability to regulate glucose in the bood).

8. Known Risk Factors

The Canadian Cancer Society lists known risk factors of pancreatic cancers alongside possible risk factors. The known risk factors of this type of cancer include smoking, obesity, diabetes, family history of pancreatic cancer, chronic pancreatitis, and eating red meat.

The source says up to 30-percent of pancreatic cancer cases are linked to smoking tobacco, and that the risk increases depending on volume and duration. The good news is the “risk goes down as soon as you quit smoking,” and continues to lower the longer you abstain from cigarettes, according to the source.

9. Possible Risk Factors

Meanwhile, “possible” risk factors include alcohol, not exercising (inactivity), eating processed meats, exposure to chemicals at work, Hepatitis B, gum disease, cystic fibrosis, and cirrhosis of the liver. It’s important to note that pancreatic cancer can arise in people who have none of the risk factors, says the Canadian Cancer Society.

The source notes some studies have tied a higher risk to alcohol, as “heavy alcohol use” is a common cause of chronic pancreatitis that causes inflammation of the important organ.

10. The Family Connection

The cancer society explains up to 20-percent of cases are hereditary or familial, meaning at least two close relatives (parents, sibling, or child) or any three family members have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“The risk for pancreatic cancer increases with the number of family members who have the disease,” it adds.

The increased risk may also be due to an inherited genetic disorder, such as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) syndrome, familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome, Lynch syndrome (also called non-polyposis colorectal cancer), and others, says the source.

11. Diagnosing The Disease

If your doctor suspects something is up based on your symptoms, they will likely order imaging tests of your internal organs, says the Mayo Clinic. Other methods of confirming pancreatic cancer include using a scope to take pictures of the organ, taking a tissue sample (biopsy), or a blood test.

Once a doctor has confirmed you’re dealing with pancreatic cancer, the next step is to determine what stage the disease it at, says the clinic. From this information, the medical team will be able to determine the best course of treatment.

12. Treating Pancreatic Cancer

Again, the treatment of this cancer depends on which stage it has progressed to, adds the Mayo Clinic. These options may include surgery to remove part of the organ or the entire thing, called a total pancreatectomy. “You can live relatively normally without a pancreas but do need lifelong [glucose regulation] and enzyme replacement,” it adds.

Meanwhile, other traditional cancer treatment approaches such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy (or a combination of both) may be applied, it adds. If the cancer has progressed to a point where doctors don’t think treatments will benefit you, the focus will be on symptom relief and palliative care, it notes.

Jeff Hayward

Jeff Hayward

Jeff has more than 15 years of experience writing professionally about health, travel and the arts among other subjects. He continuously looks to improve his own overall health through exercise, diet and mindfulness. He is also a proud stay-at-home dad that loves taking photographs both professionally and as a hobby.