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Pancreatic Cancer

What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is a small organ just below the liver that aids in digestion and the body’s metabolism of sugars. The cause of pancreatic cancer is not fully understood. However, as with all cancers, cells in the organ begin to mutate, rapidly dividing and replicating until they form a tumor or mass. In most cases, pancreatic cancer forms in the cells lining the ducts of the pancreas; this type is known as pancreatic adenocarcinoma (or pancreatic exocrine cancer). Pancreatic endocrine cancer is a less common form of pancreatic cancer that develops in hormone-producing cells of the pancreas.

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is rarely detected in its early stages, as signs and symptoms often don’t appear until the cancer is already inoperable. This cancer tends to spread rapidly. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 53,070 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2016, with men affected at a slightly higher rate than women. Still, the average lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer is approximately 1 in 65 for both men and women. Certain risk factors (see below) can increase that average risk.

What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is associated with several risk factors, including some that can be controlled and others that cannot. However, it is important to remember that many people who develop this cancer have no known risk factors; also, many people who have these risk factors do not develop pancreatic cancer. Controllable risk factors include:

  • Tobacco use
  • Being overweight/obese
  • Chemical exposure – especially solvents and petroleum compounds (common in dry cleaning and metal working industries)

Uncontrollable risk factors include:

  • Age: almost all pancreatic cancer cases involve patients over 45; the average age at diagnosis is 71
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Family History: This cancer may run in some families, but this may also be a result of inherited syndromes…
  • Gender: men are slightly more prone to developing this cancer than women
  • Inherited genetic syndromes: BRCA2 gene mutation (also referred to as the “breast cancer gene”), Lynch syndrome, familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM), Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome
  • Race: African Americans are slightly more at risk than whites.
  • Type 2 diabetes

The influence of the following factors is not yet fully determined. However, some studies have suggested a link between behaviors and pancreatic cancer:

  • Diets high in red and processed meat and low in fruits and vegetables
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Drinking coffee
  • Heavy use of alcohol

Are there symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include the following. However, pancreatic cancer can oftentimes be asymptomatic.

  • Blood clots
  • Dark urine
  • Depression
  • Difficulty with digesting fatty foods
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling full after eating a small amount of food
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin)
  • Light-colored stools
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Pain in upper/middle abdomen and back
  • Pruritus: skin that itches as result of biliary obstruction
  • Swollen legs

How do you screen for and detect pancreatic cancer?

If your physician has reason to believe you may have pancreatic cancer, then you may undergo one or more of the following diagnostic tests. At this time, routine screening for pancreatic cancer is not a recommended practice. Select a procedure to learn more about it:

  • Biopsy
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (a small ultrasound device is introduced via an endoscope, which passes through the esophagus and into the stomach where it can be placed very close to the pancreas)
  • MRI, PET & CT Scans

The Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

Oncologists at Jordan Valley Cancer Center use the following stages to describe pancreatic cancer’s progression: 

  • Stage I: Cancer is limited to the pancreas.
  • Stage II: Cancer has spread beyond the pancreas and is affecting nearby tissues and organs (possibly lymph nodes).
  • Stage III: Cancer has spread to major blood vessels (possibly lymph nodes).
  • Stage IV: Cancer has metastasized and spread to other distant areas of the body (e.g. liver, lungs, peritoneum, etc.).

How do you treat pancreatic cancer?

Providers at Jordan Valley Cancer Center take an integrative approach to treating pancreatic cancer. As a patient, you may have access to providers with diverse specialties, drawing upon the best techniques from different approaches, including medical, radiation and surgical oncology. Learn more about some of the treatment options used for pancreatic cancer at Jordan Valley Cancer Center:

The Patient Experience at Jordan Valley Cancer Center

For more information about the patient experience at Jordan Valley Cancer Center, please contact us at 801-601-2260. As a cancer patient in our facility, you will receive your own Nurse Navigator, who will help you make educated and informed decisions about pursuing your care with the various specialists on staff. Together, we will help you obtain the best possible care for your needs.