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Overview of Pancreatic Cancer: Meaning, types, causes, symptoms and treatment

Team AckoJan 17, 2024

The pancreas is an elongated, vital endocrine organ positioned just near the duodenum and liver, behind the stomach. It plays an essential role by making digestive enzymes that help the body break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and digest food. The pancreas also produces important hormones like insulin and glucagon, which primarily control glycolysis (glucose metabolism). While insulin helps the cells metabolise glucose and generate energy, glucagon provides nourishment to the body by raising the glucose level when it falls. Thus, if the pancreas is affected by cancer, it can cause serious issues. Read ahead for an overview of Pancreatic Cancer.




What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic Cancer occurs when malignant cells are formed in the tissues of the pancreas. It typically occurs when a gene mutation results in uncontrolled cell growth. Pancreatic Cancer is difficult to detect at an early stage because of the location of the pancreas. Pancreatic Cancer can affect any part of the pancreas; however, almost 70% of this cancer is located in the head of the pancreas.

Pancreatic Cancer is the twelfth most common cancer in men and the eleventh most common cancer in women. Every year, around 3,31,000 people die due to Pancreatic Cancer, the seventh leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women. The five-year survival rate of this cancer is 9%.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic Cancer is of two types which include the following.

1. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma

This type of cancer occurs in the exocrine cells of the pancreas. The exocrine pancreas makes digestive enzymes like lipase, proteases, and amylase. The exocrine pancreas is essential for the adaptation, restoration, and survival of the organism. It is the most common type of Pancreatic Cancer, affecting 95% of Pancreatic Cancer patients.

2. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours

It is a rarer type of Pancreatic Cancer that develops in the endocrine cells of the pancreas. Endocrine cells are vital because they produce insulin and glucagon hormones that regulate the blood glucose level and other essential activities. Less than 5% of people are diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours.

What causes Pancreatic Cancer?

The causes of Pancreatic Cancer are unclear. Cancer usually occurs when abnormal cells begin to multiply in the pancreas and form tumours. Normally, the healthy cells in our body develop and die moderately, whereas, in a cancer-affected body, the abnormal cells continue to multiply and take over the healthy cells. The causes of this mutation of cells are not clear. However, there are certain risk factors that may increase your risk of developing Pancreatic Cancer. They include the following.

  • Using tobacco: Usage of tobacco in the form of cigarettes, cigars, bidis, and various smokeless tobacco products may contribute to around 20 to 35% of cases of Pancreatic Cancer.

  • Excessive alcohol consumption: People who have the habit of taking three or more alcoholic drinks per day, have a high risk of developing Pancreatic Cancer.   

  • Chronic or genetic pancreatitis: Pancreatitis refers to the inflammation of the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis occurs when you drink excessively high and smoke regularly. Pancreatitis can also be inherited.

  • Obesity: A study says that being overweight during early adulthood can elevate the risk of developing Pancreatic Cancer. Furthermore, if you carry weight around your waistline, even though you are not obese, can contribute as a risk factor for Pancreatic Cancer.

  • High-calorie diet: Consuming a high-calorie diet such as red meat, processed food, fried and fast foods, or sugary foods may increase your risk of developing this cancer.

  • Exposure to chemicals: As per studies, prolonged exposure to chemicals like nickel, cadmium, and arsenic can contribute to 12& of cases of Pancreatic Cancer.

  • Age: As per the SEER cancer statistics, Pancreatic Cancer predominantly affects the older population. Most of the patients who have been diagnosed with this cancer are more than fifty years old. The average age for more than half of the cases is seventy-one years.

  • Gender: The occurrence of Pancreatic Cancer is more in men than in women. The statistics show that globally this rate is 5.5 per lakh in men and 4.0 per lakh in women. It is perhaps because lifestyle factors such as excessive alcohol consumption and smoking habits in men make them more vulnerable to this disease.

  • Diabetes: If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, then your risk of having Pancreatic Cancer increases by 1.5 to 2 times.

Other causes include ethnicity, family history, genetic mutation, and Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection in the digestive system, which may increase your risk of developing Pancreatic Cancer.

What are the symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?

Usually, Pancreatic Cancer does not exhibit any symptoms until it becomes advanced. As it advances, the following symptoms may occur.

  • Anorexia or appetite loss

  • Unintended weight loss

  • Pain in the upper abdomen that may radiate to your back

  • Pain in the lower back

  • Deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in the leg followed by redness, pain, and swelling)

  • Jaundice

  • Light-coloured stool

  • Dark urine

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Itchy skin

  • Diabetes

Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer

If your healthcare provider suspects you have Pancreatic Cancer, the healthcare team will review your medical history and present symptoms. They may recommend additional tests to be performed.

  • Imaging tests: These tests include an X-ray, CT scan, and MRI Scan to get a detailed and complete image of your pancreas.

  • Endoscopic ultrasound: It is a thin, flexible tube having a camera attached that is inserted into the stomach to get an image of the pancreas.

  • Biopsy or tissue sample: If required, a tiny tissue sample is collected through the endoscope to study it under a microscope.

  • Blood tests: Blood tests are done to detect Pancreatic Cancer.

Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

The different stages of Pancreatic Cancer include the following.

  • Stage 0: There are abnormal cells in the lining of the pancreas, which could be malignant.

  • Stage 1: The cancer is present in the pancreas only.

  • Stage 2: Cancer has spread to the nearby lymph nodes, tissues, or organs.

  • Stage 3: The cancerous cells have spread to the major blood vessels.

  • Stage 4: Cancer has metastasized to distant organs such as the abdominal cavity, liver, or lungs.

How is Pancreatic Cancer treated?

The treatment of Pancreatic Cancer depends on the location, stage, and spread of the tumour. It is also essential to know your overall health. The recommended treatments include the following.

1. Surgery

This option involves the surgical removal of the pancreas along with the nearby lymph nodes. This process is called a pancreatectomy. If the malignancy is located in the head of the pancreas, your healthcare provider may surgically remove the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, the duodenum, and a part of the bile duct, along with the nearby lymph nodes.

2. Radiation therapy

In this procedure, high-energy radiation beams and x-rays are used to destroy the cancerous cells. This option is recommended when cancer has spread to other organs.

3. Chemotherapy

This treatment option uses cancer-killing drugs to prevent the future growth of malignant cells.

4. Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy treatment helps your body combat cancer. Specific drugs are administered to you to boost your immunity. It helps your immune system recognize and fight cancer cells.

5. Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is designed to target and destroy cancer cells without harming healthy ones.

In certain cases of Pancreatic Cancer, the doctor may recommend combined treatment options, such as undergoing chemotherapy before surgery.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here’s a list of common questions and answers related to Pancreatic Cancer.


What are the signs of Pancreatic Cancer?

The main signs of Pancreatic Cancer may include the following.

  • Appetite loss

  • Unintended weight loss

  • Pain in the upper abdomen that may radiate to your back

  • Blood clots in the leg followed by redness, pain, and swelling

  • Jaundice

  • Light-colored stool

  • Dark urine

What causes Pancreatic Cancer?

The primary causes of Pancreatic Cancer include using tobacco, excessive alcohol, chronic pancreatitis, obesity, a diet high in calories, exposure to certain chemicals (like nickel, and cadmium), age, gender, family history, genetic mutation, and Helicobacter pylori infection.

Can Pancreatic Cancer be cured?

Pancreatic Cancer can be cured only if diagnosed and treated at an early stage.

What is the five-year survival rate of Pancreatic Cancer?

As per studies, the five-year survival rate of Pancreatic Cancer is 9%.

Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.


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