Pancreatic Cancer Treatment - General Information About Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas.

The pancreas is a gland about 6 inches long that is shaped like a thin pear lying on its side. The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas lies between the stomach and the spine.
Anatomy of the pancreas; drawing shows the pancreas, stomach, spleen, liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, colon, and small intestine. An inset shows the head, body, and tail of the pancreas. The bile duct and pancreatic duct are also shown.
Anatomy of the pancreas. The pancreas has three areas: head, body, and tail. It is found in the abdomen near the stomach, intestines, and other organs.
The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:
    The digestive juices are made by exocrine pancreas cells and the hormones are made by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells. This summary is about exocrine pancreatic cancer. For information on endocrine pancreatic cancer, see the PDQ summary on . For information on pancreatic cancer in children, see the PDQ summary on .

    Smoking and health history can affect the risk of pancreatic cancer.

    Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include the following:

    Possible signs of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain, and weight loss.

    These and other symptoms may be caused by pancreatic cancer. In the early stages of pancreatic cancer, there may not be any symptoms, or other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following problems:
    • Light-colored stools.
    • Dark urine.
    • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back.
    • Weight loss for no known reason.
    • Loss of appetite.
    • Feeling very tired.

    Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect (find) and diagnose early.

    Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for the following reasons:

      Tests that examine the pancreas are used to detect (find), diagnose, and stage pancreatic cancer.

      Pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed with tests and procedures that make pictures of the pancreas and the area around it. The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within and around the pancreas is called staging. Tests and procedures to detect, diagnose, and stage pancreatic cancer are usually done at the same time. In order to plan treatment, it is important to know the stage of the disease and whether or not the pancreatic cancer can be removed by surgery. The following tests and procedures may be used:
      • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
      • Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances, such as bilirubin, released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it.
      • Tumor marker test: A procedure in which a sample of blood, urine, or tissue is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances, such as CA 19-9, and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), made by organs, tissues, or tumor cells in the body. Certain substances are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the body. These are called tumor markers.
      • Abdominal ultrasound: An ultrasound exam used to make pictures of the inside of the abdomen. The ultrasound transducer is pressed against the skin of the abdomen and directs high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) into the abdomen. The sound waves bounce off the internal tissues and organs and make echoes. The transducer receives the echoes and sends them to a computer, which uses the echoes to make pictures called sonograms. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.
      • Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the abdomen to check for signs of disease. Small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen and a laparoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted into one of the incisions. The laparoscope may have an ultrasound probe at the end in order to bounce high-energy sound waves off internal organs, such as the pancreas. This is called laparoscopic ultrasound. Other instruments may be inserted through the same or other incisions to perform procedures such as taking tissue samples from the pancreas or a sample of fluid from the abdomen to check for cancer.

      Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

      The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:
      • Whether or not the tumor can be removed by surgery.
      • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).
      Pancreatic cancer can be controlled only if it is found before it has spread, when it can be completely removed by surgery. If the cancer has spread, palliative treatment can improve the patient's quality of life by controlling the symptoms and complications of this disease.