Pancreatic Cancer: Causes and Symptoms
The pancreas is an organ located behind the lower part of the stomach. The pancreas plays an important role in releasing enzymes that helps in digestion and it also releases hormones to regulate blood sugar levels. Pancreatic cancer starts from the tissues of the organ and spreads rapidly to affect neighbouring organs. The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer at an early stage is very rare. The causes for pancreatic cancer is unclear, however, certain factors play an important role in causing the disease. They are –
- Genetic factors – A genetic change in a person’s DNA can adversely impact the genes that deal with cell division. This could be a condition passed on from ancestors.
- Exposure to Toxins – Frequent exposure to toxic chemicals such as dyes, pesticides and other chemicals used to refine metals may lead to cell damage and cause cancer.
- Age- Individuals above the age of 60 are at a higher risk of pancreatic cancer.
- Chain-smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke can cause pancreatic cancer.
- Obesity and lack of exercise.
- Alcohol Consumption – Over consumption of alcohol leads to chronic pancreatitis that may further lead to pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms do not show up until the advanced stage and hence, it is called a silent disease. The tumours formed during pancreatic cancer are very small and do not show any signs at the early stages. Some of the common symptoms of pancreatic cancer at advanced stages are-
- Sudden occurrence of diabetes.
- Discomfort and pain in the upper abdomen as the tumour grows larger and pushes against the nerves.
- Sudden loss of weight and fatigue.
- Nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite.
- Passing of pale and grey fatty stool.
- Formation of blood clots in the portal blood vessels, superficial veins and deep veins of the arms and legs.
How is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?
Depending on the symptoms, your doctor will put you through a few tests to diagnose the problem. Some of the common tests are-
Ultrasound – An ultrasound image of the abdomen helps in diagnosing pancreatic cancer. An ultrasound image is captured through harmless sound wave which is reflected off the organs to form images.
CT Scan- CT Scan helps in capturing a detailed image of the organs present in the abdomen area with the help of X-ray. This helps in diagnosing pancreatic cancer.
MRI – MRI or Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a process in which detailed images of the internal organs are captured using magnetic waves by a scanner.
PET Scan- Positron Emission Tomography (PET) is carried out by injecting radioactive glucose into the veins which are absorbed by cancer cells. This helps in finding the areas affected by pancreatic cancer.
Blood Tests- Increased levels of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and CA 19-9 in the blood help in detecting pancreatic cancer.
Biopsy- A method in which a small piece of tissue is taken from the infected area for microscopic inspection to determine the severity of the problem is called a biopsy.
What are the treatment options? (Surgical and non-surgical)
Surgical treatments for pancreatic cancer depend on the intensity of the cancer. Surgeries for pancreatic cancer cannot eradicate the cancer completely as the cancer is diagnosed at advanced stages. The surgeries can focus on pausing the growth of the cancer cells which may cause further damage. This way, the qualities of patients’ lives are improved. Some of the surgical procedures are-
Surgery in the pancreatic head – It is a complicated procedure that involves the removal of tumour present in the pancreatic head, called the Whipple procedure. In this operation, the head of the pancreas is disconnected along with few parts of the adjacent organs such as gallbladder, bile duct and stomach to prevent cancer from spreading. Once the tumour is removed, the other organs are reconnected.
Surgery in pancreatic body and tail – In this procedure, the tumour present on the left side of the pancreas is removed along with the body and tail of the pancreas. This procedure is called distal pancreatectomy.
Surgery to remove entire pancreas- The entire pancreas is removed to eradicate cancer and the procedure is called total pancreatectomy. After the surgery, patients are advised to take insulin and enzyme replacement to extend their life expectancy.
Chemotherapy – In this treatment, the drugs are provided to kill cancer cells. Medicines are given orally or through IV injections. Chemotherapy drugs vary from one patient to another depending upon the intensity of the cancer. In advanced stages, chemotherapy is provided along with radiation therapy. This procedure is called chemoradiation therapy.
Radiation Therapy – In this procedure, high energy beams made from X-ray photons are passed through the patient’s body while they lie down on a table with multiple rays pointing at a particular body part from a moving machine. This treatment is mostly used to cure cancer at advanced stages.
Palliative Care – This is a treatment given to patients suffering from advanced stages of cancer. Patients choose palliative care treatments when medical treatments do not work. It helps in relieving pain and discomfort and strengthens emotional and mental health.