Pancreatic cancer: Everything you need to know

Cáncer de páncreas

What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is and organ of the digestive system, and its functions have to do with digestive processes. It is responsible for secreting enzymes and substances that are necessary to digest and absorb food nutrients, as well as the generation of hormones such as insulin and glucagon, which regulate the amount of glucose in blood. This type of cancer consists in the formation of malignant cells in the pancreas tissues.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Normally, the symptoms in this type of tumour aren’t detected until an advanced phase of the disease. Likewise, having these symptoms don’t mean having pancreatic cancer, so it should always be a healthcare professional who offers a diagnosis for each case.

The main symptoms are:

  • Jaundice: the person’s eyes and skin turn yellow.
  • Weight loss: since the process of absorption of nutrients is not performed correctly. It is often accompanied by loss of appetite and changes in intestinal transit.
  • Pain in the upper part of the abdomen: with more acute episodes after eating or when the person is lying down.
  • Dark urine and clay-coloured feces: when there is an obstruction of the bile duct preventing the elimination of bile salts. The retention of this component causes an increase in bilirubin that is normally eliminated by the kidney, causing the colour change of urine and feces.
  • Nausea and vomiting: whether it’s an intestinal obstruction, in the case that the tumour is located in the upper part of the pancreas.
  • Heavy digestions: accompanied by abdominal swelling.
  • Pancreatitis: it also produces an inflammation of the pancreas in some patients.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the less frequent malignant tumours among the general population, affecting only 2.1% of cases.

Do you know the risk factors in pancreatic cancer?

  • Age: the older, higher risk.
  • Race: this tumour is more common in African American people.
  • Diet: a diet based on meat and low in fruits and vegetables, may increase the risk of developing this disease.
  • Obesity: is associated with an increased risk of suffering cancer of the pancreas.
  • Tobacco: it is the most important factor. At least 30% of cases are due to smoking.
  • Profession: workers in contact with oil or pesticides have higher incidence rates.
  • Genetic factors: 10% of these tumours are due to family history.
  • Prolonged inflammation of the pancreas, chronic pancreatitis.

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

Different tests can be performed to detect this type of tumour. The most common are listed below:

  • Study by images: tests such as a computed tomography of the abdomen, a magnetic resonance of the abdomen, an ultrasound, or an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography can be requested.
  • Blood test: in which analyzes the liver function, serum bilirubin and tumour markers.
  • Biopsy: analyzing a small sample of the organ to detect if there is a tumour and if it’s malignant.

Are there different types of pancreatic cancer?

Yes, depending on the origin of the tumour:

  • Exocrine tumours: it’s the most frequent type (95%). In these cases, the tumour develops in the ducts of the pancreas and are called ductal adenocarcinomas.
  • Endocrine tumours: they represent a 5% of all pancreatic cancers. The tumour can produce hormones, which will determine its denomination, such as glucagonoma, insulinoma and vipoma.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

There are several treatments for this type of tumour and the decision of treatment will depend on the stage of the disease, on the general state of health of the patient and on the multidisciplinary valoration by the medical team. The main methods of treatment are the following:

  • Surgery: consisting of total or partial removal of the pancreas, depending on the location and size of the tumour. This surgery can be combined with radiotherapy or chemotherapy. There are different types of surgical interventions to remove this tumour:
  • Laparoscopy: making small incisions in the abdomen and introducing a camera to see if the tumour has spread inside. This technique is usually used to assess the extent.
  • Surgery of extirpation: the organ is totally or partially removed, as well as the nearby lymph nodes.
  • Radiation therapy: use of X-rays to destroy cancer cells. It can be done before or after surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells.
  • PIPAC: it is a novel technique that consists in the application of intraperitoneal chemotherapy (inside the abdomen) in form of an aerosol and through a laparoscopy. It is usually applied in cases in which surgery can’t be performed and in those patients who are not candidates for chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. At the moment it is considered a palliative technique but the clinical results are very encouraging and it has been seen that it can lengthen the survival of patients and improve their quality of life.

The treatment options of each patient depend on several factors, but the differential element is to be placed in the hands of the best experts, oncological surgeons who assess each case and provide the most advanced treatment solutions.

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