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Pancreatic Cancer: Signs and Symptoms, Treatments, Causes, & Risk Factors

The pancreas is an organ within the abdomen that discharges enzymes to help with digestion as well as hormones that aid in managing blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer stems from the tissues within this organ and can spread quite quickly to other organs located close by.

Pancreatic cancer unfolds as the organ’s cells grow mutations within their DNA. This then results in these mutated cells uncontrollably growing and living on when normal cells would just die. The cells gather up to form a tumor, and if the pancreatic cancer is untreated, the cancers simply grow and move on within other areas of the body.

Sadly, pancreatic cancer is rarely detected within its early stages; however, can sometimes be found via screenings for those with a family history of the condition or for those who suffer from pancreatic cysts.

Below is an overview of signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, treatments, as well as causes and risk factors around the condition.

Signs and Symptoms

Most patients don’t report signs and symptoms around this illness until the it has progressed over some time. Still, some symptoms include:

  • Upper abdominal pain, which emits to one’s back
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Blood clots
  • Diabetes
  • Fatigue
  • Jaundice, that is, yellowing of skin and the whites of eyes

If you are someone you love is experiencing the one or more of the above signs or symptoms of pancreatic cancer, it is recommended that you see your family doctor. Many of the above conditions can cause this illness, or a slew of diseases, so it is wise to visit a physician and get checked out. It could be nothing, but if it is something, the earlier it is detected, the early you can be placed on a treatment plan to get on the road to recovery.

Treatment

As with any cancer, a patient’s treatment for this condition depends on the stage the pancreatic cancer is at, a patient’s overall health, as well the location of the tumor.

Treatment options for pancreatic cancer include chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, or a combination of these working hand-in-hand to remove the cancer and relieve a person of their symptoms.

Chemotherapy

This treatment for pancreatic cancer uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. They can be taken orally or injected into a person’s vein. Some individuals receive one chemo drug, or they take a combination of them. For those who have advanced pancreatic cancer, where removing the tumor might not be an option, this treatment is used to control its growth and prolong a person’s life.

Surgery

Surgery options for pancreatic cancer are as follows:

Tumors in the Pancreatic Head: If the cancer is located at the pancreatic head, patients consider a surgery known as the Whipple procedure, which is sometimes referred to as a pancreaticoduodenectomy. A trying process, it removes the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, the first area of the duodenum (small intestine), and a section of the bile duct. In certain cases, part of a patient’s stomach and lymph nodes close by might be taken out as well. The surgeon will re-link the remaining elements within a patient’s pancreas, intestines, and stomach together, to allow for food digestion.

Tumors in the Pancreatic Body and Tail: This procedure involves taking out the left side of a patient’s pancreas, and is known as a distal pancreatectomy. In some instances, the spleen might be removed too.

Entire Pancreas: Referred to as a pancreatectomy, for some patients, the entire pancreas needs to be taken out to survive this illness. In fact, individuals can live without their pancreas; however, they will need to be on an enzyme replacement and insulin for the rest of their lives.

Tumors Affecting Nearby Blood Vessels: A lot of pancreatic cancer patients are not eligible for any of the above surgeries, including the Whipple, if their tumors deals with blood vessels close by. While few medical centers across America have such experienced and highly-specialized surgeons, there are some out there that can perform the removal and reconstruction of parts of blood vessels within some individuals.

Radiation Therapy

Using high-energy beams, radiation therapy kills cancer cells and can be used before or after surgery and hand-in-hand with chemotherapy.

The radiation is applied via a machine that moves around the patient, directing these rays to specific areas of the body. In some specialized medical facilities, this treatment can be relayed during surgery as well.

Clinical Tials

Clinical trials are an unique option for some pancreatic cancer patients out there that are will do give something different a try to battle this cancer. Clinical trials are studies that experiment on new treatments, or offer new approaches to existing therapies.

Clinical trials give pancreatic cancer patients an opportunity to try new treatments, vaccinations, chemo drugs; however, they do not guarantee success and might offer unexpected or serious side effects.

Supportive (Palliative) Care

Palliative care is an option for both patients who are undergoing treatment for their pancreatic cancer, as well as those with no options around tumor removal; where this treatment offers patients relief from the pain that comes along with their pancreatic cancer symptoms. Palliative care specialists work with patients and their families, as well as doctors, to offer an additional support layer to those who are affected by the disease. It is also sometimes used while individuals are undergoing other treatments like chemo, surgery, or radiation therapy. In fact, palliative care is most effectively used soon after diagnosis and with other pancreatic cancer treatments, so patients can live longer and feel better in the process.

Causes

Sadly, in most cases the exact reason behind a patient’s pancreatic cancer is unknown; however, research has identified certain factors that can enhance chances around developing the condition.

Risk factors

Below are some risk factors when it comes to increasing one’s chances on developing pancreatic cancer. They are:

  • Having diabetes
  • Having a chronic inflammation pancreas (referred to as pancreatitis) condition
  • A family history around the disease
  • A family history when it comes to genetic syndromes that can enhance the chances of developing cancer, which include:
    • The BRCA2 gene mutation
    • The Lynch syndrome,

as well as,

  • The Familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Obesity
  • Aging: most pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed at 65 years of age or older

A significantly-sized study in the past revealed that a poor diet, combined with cigarette smoking, and having a long-standing diabetes condition tremendously increased the risk around getting pancreatic cancer, beyond any of the above factors on their own.

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