What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow in the pancreas, forming a tumor. These cells can continue to grow and spread to other areas of the body, such as the lungs, liver, abdominal wall, bones and lymph nodes.
The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach. It is about 6-10 inches long and 2 inches wide. It has two functions – exocrine and endocrine.
- The exocrine function makes chemicals that break down protein and delivers these chemicals directly into the digestive tract. This is the main function of the pancreas and most tumors occur here.
- A smaller part of the pancreas focuses on the endocrine function. This makes insulin and glucagon. The pancreas puts insulin and glucagon directly into your bloodstream to help your body burn or store sugar. Cancers in this area are very rare.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and treat, although new treatments show some promise. The University of Kansas Cancer Center offers comprehensive services for the screening, diagnosis, treatment and support of people with pancreatic cancer.
Types of pancreatic cancer
With pancreatic cancer, tumors are either exocrine or neuroendocrine. The majority of tumors are exocrine, with the most common type being adenocarcinoma. Only about 7% of tumors are neuroendocrine. These tumors typically grow more slowly than exocrine tumors.
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Risks
We don’t know the exact cause of pancreatic cancer. We do know that people with certain risk factors may be more likely to get it.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer
- Being overweight
- Drinking alcohol
- Having inflammation of the pancreas, known as pancreatitis
- Smoking tobacco
- A family history of pancreatic cancer
You may reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer by controlling some of the risk factors described here. Pancreatic cancer usually occurs for reasons we don’t clearly understand, however.
Pancreatic cancer symptoms
Pancreatic cancer has no clear early symptoms. The following symptoms can occur with pancreatic cancer but may also be a sign of something else.
- Dark urine, pale stools, and yellow skin and eyes from jaundice (without pain)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain in the middle part of your back that doesn’t go away when you shift your position
- Pain in the upper part of your belly unrelated to eating or drinking
- Stools that float in the toilet
Advanced cancer also can cause:
- Loss of appetite or feelings of fullness
- Weakness or feeling very tired
- Weight loss for no known reason
If you have these symptoms, call your doctor or make an appointment with The University of Kansas Cancer Center.
Pancreatic Cancer Screening and Diagnosis
To detect and diagnose pancreatic cancer, our doctors perform thorough exams. They also ask questions about your health history and symptoms. Some of the tests they may perform include:
Your doctor feels your abdomen to check for changes in areas near the pancreas, liver, gallbladder and spleen. Doctors also look for an abnormal buildup of fluid in the abdomen. Also, your skin and eyes may be checked for signs of jaundice.
A CT or CAT scan uses X-rays to make a detailed picture of the structures inside your body. You lie on a table while the scanner sends a series of X-ray pulses through your body. An iodine dye (contrast material) is often injected to make structures and organs easier to see on the CT pictures.
We are one of the few providers in the region offering endoscopic ultrasound. It combines endoscopy and ultrasound. It can give your doctor detailed images of the gastrointestinal tract and surrounding organs without surgery. The doctor inserts an endoscope into the mouth or rectum. We also combine EUS with fine needle aspiration to collect tissue samples.
ERCP stands for endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography. In this test, the doctor inserts a small flexible scope through your mouth into your stomach. Through the scope, the doctor can inject dye into your bile and pancreatic ducts. X-rays then make images of your bile ducts and pancreas.
HIDA stands for hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid scan. With this test, a radioactive chemical goes into your veins. The scanner then makes an image showing how the tracer flows through your liver, gallbladder, biliary tract and small intestine.
MRI is a procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves and a computer to make detailed pictures of areas in your body. The procedure is also known as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.
The PET scan uses a special camera to see organs in the body. The camera records a tracer (radioactive sugar) that goes into a vein. Cancer cells use more sugar than normal cells, so the tracer shows up in the cancer cells.
These and other follow-up tests help your healthcare team detect pancreatic cancer, learn how far it has spread (known as staging) and develop a pancreatic cancer treatment plan.
Pancreatic cancer treatment
Gastrointestinal cancer (GI cancer) specialists at The University of Kansas Cancer Center are at the forefront of discovering new pancreatic cancer treatments that improve patients' lives.
Our doctors have helped develop a new generation of chemotherapy drugs. These drugs treat specific aspects of GI cancer, such as the cancerous cells or cell-growth mechanisms. They include:
- Targeted therapies that kill cancer cells without affecting healthy cells
- Anti-angiogenesis drugs that prevent the formation of the blood vessels that feed tumors
We can use these in combination with traditional chemotherapy and surgery, when necessary.
We also offer advanced treatments for pancreatic cancer with interventional radiology. IR uses CT technology to guide a probe from the skin directly to a lesion to perform microwave ablation. IR also uses live X-ray to guide catheters into tumor vessels to embolize or stop blood supply to tumors. Advanced imaging, including X-ray, CT-MRI and ultrasound, help interventional radiologists guide the catheter to the affected area of the body.
Our da Vinci® Surgical System can improve the surgeons' precision in GI surgeries.
Radioisotope therapy uses a radioactive drug to selectively destroy cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy cells. The procedure uses infusion to administer a liquid radiation, such as Lutathera, along with amino acids to protect the kidneys.