By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Pancreatic cancer is sometimes referred to as a silent killer because it rarely causes any symptoms in the initial stages and can be difficult to diagnose.
As the cancer progresses, the symptoms that develop depend on the type, stage and location of the cancer. Some examples of symptoms that may develop include abdominal pain, jaundice, weight loss, bowel problems, nausea, vomiting, fever and shivering.
By the time the cancer becomes symptomatic, it is usually in its more advanced stages when treatment is less likely to be successful.
If a pancreatic tumor interrupts the usual function of the pancreas, diabetes may develop because the pancreas usually produces insulin to regulate the body’s blood glucose level. People who have developed diabetes may feel thirsty, urinate more frequently and lack energy. The likelihood of diabetes developing increases with age and if an individual suddenly develops late onset diabetes in the absence of any obvious causes, the doctor may decide to check for pancreatic cancer.
If a cancer is small and confined to the pancreas, the tumor may be resectable and completely removable with a surgical procedure. This is the most effective treatment for pancreatic cancer in the early stages. However, only 15% to 20% of patients are candidates for surgery due to the difficulty diagnosing the condition while it is still in the early stages and therefore operable.
Pancreatic cancer surgery is a major surgery and a patient will need bed rest in hospital for several days, followed by a month of resting at home. The main side effects of surgery include weakness, pain and tiredness. Other side effects include difficulty digesting food and diabetes caused by loss of insulin production.
Surgery may also be followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The side effects associated with chemotherapy include vomiting, nausea, mouth sores and fatigue while radiotherapy can cause loss of appetite, skin rashes, fatigue and sores in the esophagus or food pipe.
The survival rates for pancreatic cancer are poor as the disease has often metastasized or spread to other parts of the body by time it is diagnosed. However, patients who are diagnosed with the condition who do have a resectable tumor have a greater than 30% chance of surviving beyond five years after the date of their diagnosis.
Pancreatic cancer is the ninth most common cancer in the United Kingdom, the fourth most common cause of cancer death in the United states and the 12th most common cause of death from cancer worldwide. The condition is more common among those over 60 years of age and rare among those aged under 40 years.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc
Last Updated: Mar 31, 2014