The pancreas is the organ located just behind the stomach and uses enzymes to assist with digestion. According to the American Cancer Society, the average lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer is 1 in 64, making it account for 3% of all cancers in the US. Not all people have the same risk of developing pancreatic cancer, however. Certain risk factors play a huge role in the likeliness of developing pancreatic cancer. Though there is so much unknown about how the identified risk factors actually lead to a diagnosis, positive lifestyle changes can be helpful in keeping your body healthy and possibly even prevent the development of pancreatic cancer.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
It is possible to have cancerous and noncancerous tumors grow in the pancreas. Like in other cancers, pancreatic cancer occurs when an abnormal cell begins to divide at a higher production rate than normal. In pancreatic cancer, the cancerous cells will spread outside of the pancreas in later stages. Though there are two types of pancreatic cancer, the most common type usually begins in the lining of the ducts where the digestive enzymes leave the pancreas.
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
What are the first warning signs of pancreatic cancer? When it comes to detecting pancreatic cancer, symptoms do not prove to be very helpful. Through most of the curable stages, there are virtually no symptoms. By the time the cancer has spread to other areas, the symptoms are still difficult to connect to the pancreas. These symptoms include:
- Vomiting or nausea
- Back pain
- Upper abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Itchy skin
- Dark-colored urine
- Light-colored stool
Pancreatic Cancer Causes
While knowing what directly causes pancreatic cancer is unclear, a few connections to pancreatic cancer have been identified. Smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, obesity, age, and diabetes all have been linked to pancreatic cancer, but how they are related is still inconclusive. The cancer is caused by damaged DNA in cells that begin dividing at a faster rate than usual and do not die off as quickly as normal, healthy cells. What is causing the DNA to become damaged is still unknown.
In patients who have periodontal disease, bacteria can enter the bloodstream through irritated and infected gums, causing inflamed blood vessels that can lead to heart attack, stroke, and has even recently become an independent cause of Type 2 diabetes. Recent studies are also seeing associations between periodontal disease and the development of pancreatic cancer.
How is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects you of having pancreatic cancer, a series of tests will be recommended to identify whether or not you have pancreatic cancer and how severe it is. A few of the tests are:
- A blood test. This identifies a particular protein that pancreatic cancer cells shed. This is a good test for concluding the presence of pancreatic cancer. The downside to this test is that it can not rule out that you don’t have pancreatic cancer because some people do not show signs of this protein in their blood even if the cancer has already been identified.
- A biopsy. When a small amount of tissue is examined to see if cancer is present, it is called a biopsy.
- An endoscopic ultrasound. This ultrasound takes pictures of your pancreas from inside your abdomen using a scope sent down your throat and into your stomach. This endoscope is often able to take a small amount of tissue to be used for a biopsy.
- Other ultrasounds, MRIs, PET scans, and CT scans are also used to identify pancreatic cancer.
Can pancreatic cancer be cured? Once pancreatic cancer gets into the later stages, the possibility of it being cured diminishes tremendously because the cancer has spread to many other areas of the body. But if the cancer is caught earlier, through treatment, it is possible to be cured of pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic Cancer Stages
The different stages of cancer are used to inform how advanced the cancer is, how far it has spread outside the initial organ, and how to determine what types of treatments should be used. There are actually five stages to pancreatic cancer starting with Stage 0 which has the presence of precancerous, abnormal cells, but no actual cancer. The other stages where cancer is present are:
- Stage 1. The tumorous cancer is contained inside the pancreas and has not spread elsewhere. Surgery can cure pancreatic cancer if caught at this early stage. The size of the tumor can put Stage 1 into two subcategories. Stage 1A is for tumors that have not spread outside of the pancreas but measure smaller than 2cm while Stage 1B is for tumors measuring between 2 and 4cm.
- Stage 2. The tumors have spread to nearby lymph nodes or abdominal tissues. Stage 2 can be divided up into two different descriptions depending on the spread and size of the tumor. If the size of the tumor is larger than 4cm but has not spread outside of the pancreas, it is referred to as Stage 2A. If the size is smaller than 4cm but has spread to other tissues outside of the pancreas, it is considered Stage 2B. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted drugs are all used to address Stage 2 pancreatic cancer.
- Stage 3. Now the spread is in lymph nodes and major blood vessels. Though it is difficult to cure pancreatic cancer at this stage, it is still possible. Through surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy, the tumors can be taken out or shrunken. It is possible to at least stop the spread of the cancer at this stage.
- In situations where a cure is not successful at this stage, it is because some cancerous cells were missed during surgery, and the cancer was able to come back.
- Stage 4. Tumors have spread to nearby organs, like the liver. It can even spread as far away as the brain or even to bone. When pancreatic cancer spreads to these other locations in the body, more evident symptoms are brought to your attention. While there isn’t a cure for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, symptoms can be relieved with treatment and further complications can be prevented.
Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Options
- Depending on where the cancerous tumors are located in the pancreas, different surgeries can remove parts or all of the pancreas through surgery.
- Chemotherapy is used in pancreatic cancer to kill the cancerous cells
- Radiation uses a high beam to destroy cancer cells.
- A combination of chemotherapy and radiation, called chemoradiation, can be used to eliminate cancer cells and is usually used when the cancer has not spread outside of the pancreas.
- Immunotherapy is used to increase your natural immune system response to target cancerous cells.
- Targeted therapy will single out cancer cells without harming good cells with medication and antibodies.
Who’s at Risk for Pancreatic Cancer?
While the statistic, 1 in 64, seems very likely that anyone could develop pancreatic cancer in their lifetime, depending on risk factors, some people have a much lower chance of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Who is at high risk of developing pancreatic cancer? There are several contributing factors that are related to the development of pancreatic cancer. The more risk factors an individual has, the higher risk they are of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Those who are at risk of developing pancreatic cancer include:
- Those who heavily consume alcohol
- Individuals with a family history of pancreatic cancer
- Those over the age of 65
Those who suffer from disease and conditions such as:
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Lynch syndrome
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
Can You Prevent Pancreatic Cancer?
Without the known cause of pancreatic cancer, it is difficult to prescribe how to prevent someone from developing this kind of cancer. By looking at the risk factors and attributing common sense of health in general, taking steps toward living a healthier lifestyle could greatly benefit your chances of preventing pancreatic cancer from developing. Positive lifestyle changes like:
- Eat leaner meats like fish or chicken
- Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables
- Limit the amount of alcohol, sugar, and fried foods in your diet
- Exercise to lose and maintain a healthy weight
- Quit smoking
While so much is unknown about the cause of pancreatic cancer, new links and connections are being made through research. The need for a healthy lifestyle involving less processed foods and exercise is becoming ever more crucial to staving off a myriad of health complications including pancreatic cancer.
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"Key Statistics of Pancreatic Cancer." The American Cancer Society, 21 Jan. 2022, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreatic-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
Maisonneuve, P., S. Amar, A. B.Lowenfels. "Periodontal Disease, Edentulism, and Pancreatic Cancer: A Meta-Analysis." NIH, 1 May 2017 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28453689/
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