Pancreatic cancer is sometimes called a "silent killer" because early pancreatic cancer often does not cause symptoms,
- Clinical depression has been reported in association with pancreatic cancer, sometimes presenting before the cancer is diagnosed. However, the mechanism for this association is not known.
Most patients with pancreatic cancer experience pain, weight loss, or jaundice.
Pain is present in 80 to 85 percent of patients with locally advanced or advanced metastic disease. The pain is usually felt in the upper abdomen as a dull ache that radiates straight through to the back. It may be intermittent and made worse by eating. Weight loss can be profound; it can be associated with anorexia, early satiety, diarrhea, or steatorrhea. Jaundice is often accompanied by pruritus and dark urine. Painful jaundice is present in approximately one-half of patients with locally unresectable disease, while painless jaundice is present in approximately one-half of patients with a potentially resectable and curable lesion.
The initial presentation varies according to location of the cancer. Malignancies in the pancreatic body or tail usually present with pain and weight loss, while those in the head of the gland typically present with steatorrhea, weight loss, and jaundice. The recent onset of atypical diabetes mellitus, a history of recent but unexplained thrombophlebitis (Trousseau sign), or a previous attack of pancreatitis are sometimes noted.
Courvoisier sign defines the presence of jaundice and a painlessly distended gallbladder as strongly indicative of pancreatic cancer, and may be used to distinguish pancreatic cancer from gallstones.
Tiredness, irritability and difficulty eating due to pain also exist. Pancreatic cancer is usually discovered during the course of the evaluation of aforementioned symptoms.
Liver function tests can show a combination of results indicative of bile duct obstruction (raised conjugated bilirubin, γ-glutamyl transpeptidase and alkaline phosphatase levels). CA19-9 (carbohydrate antigen 19.9) is a tumor marker that is frequently elevated in pancreatic cancer. However, it lacks sensitivity and specificity. When a cutoff above 37 U/mL is used, this marker has a sensitivity of 77% and specificity of 87% in discerning benign from malignant disease. CA 19-9 might be normal early in the course, and could be elevated due to benign causes of biliary obstruction.
Imaging studies, such as computed tomography (CT scan) and Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) can be used to identify the location and form of the cancer. However, percutaneous needle biopsy of the cancerous pancreatic tissue is necessary to establish a definitive diagnosis. Endoscopic ultrasound is often used to visually guide the needle biopsy procedure.
In the September 2009 issue of the journal Cancer Prevention Research, scientists from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center identified microRNAs associated with pancreatic cancer from blood samples of pancreatic cancer patients, leading to a new and minimally invasive approach to early detection. Expression of higher levels of miR-155 circulating in blood was identified as a potential early stage biomarker, and expression of miR196a was shown to increase during disease progression. Using a panel of 4 miRNA biomarkers, miR-21, miR-210, miR-155, and miR-196a, the study achieved 64% sensitivity and 89% specificity in a sample of 28 pancreatic cancer patients and 19 healthy controls.
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