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.
There are two main types of pancreatic cancer, those that originate in cells that produce enzymes (exocrine cells) and those that originate in cells that produce hormones (endocrine cells).
Around 95% of the pancreatic cancers are exocrine tumors, which can occur anywhere along the length of the organ. The remaining 5% are endocrine tumors and are considered rare.
The pancreas is a large, leaf-shaped gland about six inches in length that lies behind the stomach at the point where the ribs meet the lower end of the breast bone or the sternum. The exocrine pancreas produces digestive enzymes and the endocrine pancreas secretes hormones such as insulin and glucagon. The digestive enzymes help to break food down into smaller fragments for absorption, while insulin and glucagon help regulate the body’s levels of glucose and its uptake as a source of energy.
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be mild and vague during the initial stages but as the cancer progresses, the following signs may develop:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Jaundice or yellowish discoloration of the whites of the eyes (sclera), skin and nail beds.
Diagnosis and treatment
As pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms in the initial stages, the cancer is usually detected once it has reached the more advanced stages and is less likely to be responsive to treatment.
Treatment depends on where the cancer is located and the stage it has reached. Removal of the tumor and any other cancerous cells is the main goal of treatment. If this is not achievable, treatment will aim to prevent growth of the tumor and any further damage it may cause.