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Pancreatic Cancer; The Early Signs

Jennifer Smith,

n 2004, approximately 31,800 people in the United States were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Out of those 31,800 people, 31,200 people died of the disease. Pancreatic adeno-carcinoma is among the most aggressive of all cancers and by the time that the cancer is diagnosed it has usually already spread to other parts of the body.

The pancreas is located in the upper abdomen beneath the stomach and in front of the spine. This gland is responsible for a wide variety of tasks including the production of digestive juices and hormones that are responsible for the regulation of blood sugar. The pancreas produces exocrine cells and endocrine cells. Exocrine pancreas cells produce digestive juices and endocrine cells produce hormones. More specifically the exocrine glands secrete enzymes that help in the digestion of food as it moves through the intestines. Endocrine glands secrete hormones, including insulin, into the bloodstream.


Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant or cancerous cells form in the tissues of the pancreas. The majority of pancreatic cancers start in the exocrine cells. The most common type of pancreatic cancer arises from the exocrine glands and is called adeno-carcinoma of the pancreas. The endocrine glands of the pancreas produce a more aggressive cancer known as pancreatic neuro-endocrine carcinoma.


The main symptoms of pancreatic cancer include the following:

1. Pain in the abdomen, the back, or both.
2. Weight loss, often associated with the following:

a. loss of appetite (anorexia)
b. bloating
c. diarrhea or fatty bowel movements that float in water (steatorrhea)
d. sometimes presents with new diabetes in a person with weight loss and nausea

3. Jaundice or yellowing of the skin.

Because these symptoms are generally vague and can easily be attributed to other less serious and more common conditions, pancreatic cancer is usually under-diagnosed. It is extremely wise to seek medical attention if any of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer occur. If pain, unexplained weight loss, or jaundice persists despite initial medical treatments, further evaluation should be pursued in a timely manner.


Pancreatic cancer has a higher probability to occur if a person exhibits certain risk factors or falls into a certain category. The main recognized risk factors for the cancer include:

1. Smoking
2. Advanced age
3. Male sex
4. Chronic pancreatitis- inflammation of the pancreas due to excessive alcohol intake or gallstones
5. Diabetes mellitus
6. Family history of pancreatic cancer


Treatment of pancreatic cancer is dependant a great deal on the extent of the disease. Doctors categorize the disease as localized, locally advanced, or metastatic. Localized cancer of the pancreas means that the cancer is confined within the pancreas. Locally advanced pancreatic cancer means that the cancer has extended from the pancreas to involve nearby blood vessels or organs. Metastatic pancreatic cancer means that although the disease started within the pancreas it has spread outside the pancreas to other parts of the body.

Generally the first goal of treatment is to remove the tumor itself. Based on the results from the initial surgery, chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy may be offered to reduce the likelihood that the cancer will return.

The only known cure for pancreatic cancer is complete surgical removal of the cancer. Only 15-20% of people with pancreatic cancer have disease that can be surgically removed at the time of diagnosis.

by Jennifer Smith


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