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Pancreatic Cancer FAQs

What is Pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is the singular condition of unregulated cellular growth in the form of tumors or cellular aggregation in the pancreas. The organ mainly secretes regulatory hormones in the body and is located below the stomach. Pancreas secretes the ever important blood glucose regulating hormone insulin and many other regulators which are crucial in maintenance of homeostasis.

Common terms explained: 

  • Islet cell cancer: This is a condition when tumors grow on the islet cells of the pancreas which are important secretors of regulatory hormones like glucagon, insulin and other hormones. The tumors might be benign or malignant and their presence leads to creation of different hormones that cause easily detectable symptoms in the body. It is a rarely occurring condition.
  • Metastatic Pancreatic cancer: Metastatic pancreatic cancer is the next level of isolated pancreatic cancer, in which the malignant tumor cells have migrated to neighbouring organs. In the tumors that occur on the second or consecutive organs, the abnormalities seen in the cells will be the same. Hence the tumor will have the same name as the original pancreatic tumor.
  • Staging of cancer: This is a process that defines the exact location, type, age and details of the cancer that has been diagnosed. Cancer development has several stages and it is important to know the stage that a tumor is in before administering the right type of therapy.

What are the causes and risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

There are several causes of pancreatic cancer. Mutations in the DNA may cause uncontrolled cell growth and lack of programmatic death can be the direct result. Genetic constitution that occurs due to overlapping of different carrier genes in family members can also cause cancerous growth in the pancreas. Exposure to cancer causing agents like dyes, pesticides, chemicals, etc. can also trigger the condition.

Risk factors that can cause cancer include lifestyle abnormalities and habits like smoking and drinking. Skipping meals, irregular bowel movements and chronic illness are other risk factors that can cause pancreatic cancer. Occupational risks like exposure to chemicals used in metallurgy industry, dyes in garment industry and pesticides in agriculture should also not be ignored.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

The main symptoms of pancreatic cancer are as follows:

  • Abdominal pain: The pain is noticed in the upper abdomen with the tumor creating pressure on surrounding viscera and nerves. The pain may be continuous or occasional and is observed to be centered on the left side of the upper abdomen.
  • Jaundice: This is a painless condition wherein the skin and eyes turn yellow due to accumulation of bile salts in the liver. The liver is found to be enlarged and the urine is dark yellow in color. This condition results when the bile duct is de-shaped and constricted due to tumor growth in the pancreas.
  • Weight loss: There is drastic weight loss in the patient which causes further weakness and dizziness. The weight loss is caused by incomplete digestion and rapid utilization of stored fats in the body.
  • Nausea: As in the case of abdominal diseases, pancreatic cancer also causes appetite, nausea and vomiting.
  • Stool Color: The stool color is seen to change drastically to pale or grey color, also known as acholic stool. Presence of excess fat in stool also known as steatorrhea is another symptom of pancreatic cancer which occurs due incomplete breakdown of fats. Both these conditions are best deciphered during a stool test.

How will my doctor know if I have pancreatic cancer?

A doctor uses a systematic testing and observation protocol to determine if a person is suffering from pancreatic cancer. When the above mentioned symptoms are seen in the patient, the doctor uses all or some of the following tests to determine the cause of pain. If it is diagnosed to be a pancreatic cancer the doctor uses the following tests to determine the exact stage of the cancer.

  • Ultrasound Imaging: The test uses ultrasound waves to determine the shape of the target organ. This helps to visualize and determine the exact location of the tumor.
  • Endoscopic Ultrasound: In this procedure a thin tube holding a miniature camera and light source at its end is inserted into the digestive tract. As the camera passes through the target organ the exact location of the tumor is seen.
  • Abdominal Computerized Tomography (CT Scan): This procedure uses ionized radiation to non-invasively visualize the exact structure of the tumor.
  • Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography: Insertion of the endoscopic tube to generate X-ray images of the common bile duct.
  • Angiogram: X-ray of blood vessels
    X-ray of upper gastrointestinal channels after oral administering of Barium swallows which is the contrast agent.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI Scans): Helps to non-invasively visualize the tumor, its shape, size and structure.
  • Positron Emission Tomography (PET Scans): To check if the cancer has spread to neighboring organs or other parts of the body.

What are the treatment modalities of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer can be treated using medication, surgery, palliative treatment, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

  • Medication: Mainly cancerous cell killing antibiotics or drugs are used to register the growth and multiplication of tumor cells. The medication may be administered orally or intravenously.
  • Surgery: Surgical removal of the tumor after its location has been determined. Surgery could be using the whipple procedure, distal pancreatectomy, and total pancreatectomy.
  • Palliative Treatment: Using a combination of therapies to create comfort and healthy body condition for the patient.
  • Chemotherapy: Exposure to chemical agents that can reduce the speed of cancer growth by triggering inhibitive processes.
  • Radiotherapy: Use of radiation in the affected area to cause death of cancerous cells.

What is palliative therapy for pancreatic cancer?

Palliative therapy is the process of creating a comfortable healthy body condition for the cancer patient who has to undergo chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. Specialists in palliative therapy understand that each cancer patient is unique. Each has a different stage and will require special combination of corrective therapies to control the cancer he or she is suffering from.

A routine approach is adopted wherein the patient’s diet, chemotherapy doses and radiotherapy routines are fixed and adhered to. The treatment requires one to one attention and the patient is able to lead a normal life only after his symptoms and pain have reduced as a result of this therapy.

What are the side effects of the treatment?

Since palliative therapy requires use of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, patients often suffer from side effects like dryness of throat, dizziness, weakness, nausea and allergy. These result from the sensitivity caused by exposure to chemicals and radiation.

If I am at risk, what should I do?

You should take immediate steps in reducing the chances of a pancreatic cancer attack/ begin by controlling risk factors in your lifestyle. These may include giving up smoking and drinking, maintaining regular food habits and getting rid of occupational hazards that expose you to carcinogens. If you are experiencing abdominal pain and other symptoms, please consult a doctor immediately and go through a few of the tests recommended by him to detect the growth of cancer. The earliest the cancer is diagnosed, the greater are the chances of getting rid of it.


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