Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in America for both men and women. This year, it is estimated that 44,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and 38,000 will die from it.

The pancreas is a large flattened gland located in the abdomen. It is composed of specialized glandular tissue and a system of ducts. Specialized pancreatic cells produce and secrete hormones necessary for digestion. Two major hormones produced by the pancreas are insulin and glucagon, which help to stabilize blood sugar. Other pancreatic cells produce enzymes to aid in the breakdown of nutrients in food.

There are two types of pancreatic cancer: primary and metastatic. Primary pancreatic cancer originates in the pancreas, and metastatic cancer has spread to the pancreas form other tissues.

Risk Factors

There are several risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer. However, simply having one of these risk factors does not guarantee that a person will develop pancreatic cancer.

  • Smoking: Smoking doubles the risk for a person to develop pancreatic cancer. It is estimated that 1/4 of all pancreatic cancer diagnoses are a result of smoking.
  • Age: Over 80% or pancreatic diagnoses are in patients 80 or older.
  • Race: Pancreatic cancer is more common, in the United States, for the African American population than the White population.
  • Diabetes: Having diabetes is both a risk factor and a symptom of pancreatic cancer.
  • Genetics: An estimated 10% of pancreatic cancer is hereditary. Relatives of patients with pancreatic cancer have an increased risk. The National Familial Pancreas Cancer Registry contains over 250 families in which two or more members have had pancreatic cancer.
Additionally, the breast cancer gene BRCA2 has been linked to pancreatic cancer. Some pancreatic cancers are believed to be caused by an inherited defect in the BRCA2 gene.
Familial history of melanoma, colon cancer, or hereditary pancreatitis has also been liked to pancreatic cancer.


Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may not develop until the cancer is at an advanced stage. Some symptoms may include:

  • abdominal pain or swelling
  • jaundice
  • back pain
  • extreme itchiness
  • the onset of diabetes
  • nausea
  • unusual weight loss
  • urine and stool discoloration


Since the onset of symptoms is gradual, pancreatic cancer is not often diagnosed in the early stages. The most effective ways to diagnose this type of cancer include a variety of imaging tests, such as CT scans, endoscopic ultrasounds, and ERCP studies.

As with most cancers, pancreatic cancer can be effectively managed if treatment begins at the early stages of development. Consult with your physician if you feel that you or a loved one are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, or if you feel that your family history puts you at an elevated risk for developing pancreatic cancer.

Source: American Cancer Society

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