Major Forms of Cancer - Cancer of the pancreas

Pancreatic cancer affects men about 30 percent more frequently than women and accounts for about five percent of cancer deaths. It is most likely to develop after the age of 40, and approximately four-fifths of all cases occur after age 60. The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, but it has been determined that smokers develop pancreatic cancer at higher rates than those who do not. Cancer of the pancreas is usually fatal.

Symptoms and Detection

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include digestive disorders, such as abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and perhaps severe constipation, as well as back pain. Abdominal distress may improve or worsen after eating and pain may increase when the patient lies on his back. The back pain that the victim experiences is often relieved by standing or bending forward. Pancreatic cancer patients will suffer pronounced weight loss, jaundice, and general bodily discomfort that comes and goes. Another sign of this cancer is a sudden onset of diabetes in an adult who is not overweight and does not have a family history of diabetes.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to diagnose because the pancreas is hidden by other organs in the body and early symptoms of this disease are vague. Along with signs of jaundice, there are many tests performed to detect this cancer. Ultrasound, a CT scan, or an MRI may be administered to image the abdomen and check for the presence of tumors. An endoscopy may be performed in which a physician examines and tests the pancreas by passing a tube down a patient's throat, through the stomach, and into the small intestine. A dye is injected through the tube into the common bile duct and the area is x-rayed. A biopsy may also be performed in which a fine needle is inserted into the pancreas or the liver to obtain tissue samples.


Surgery is the usual treatment recommended for cancer of the pancreas; the precise location of the tumor within the pancreas may determine the exact surgical procedure to be undertaken. Removal of the tumor surgically has a more hopeful outcome if it is located at the head of the pancreas; cancers in the body or tail of the pancreas usually are not detected until the disease has spread to other parts of the body. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are not as effective in the treatment of pancreatic cancer as in other organs, but are used frequently in treating certain stages of the disease.

It is important that survivors of pancreatic cancer undergo frequent checkups, since pancreatic cancer can recur within one to three years. Any recurrence of symptoms should be reported immediately to the family physician.

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