Pancreatic Cancer | Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center | Loyola Medicine

Pancreatic Cancer

Overview and Facts about Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is cancer of the pancreas, which is a gland that is located next to your stomach and spine. Your pancreas is part of your digestive health—specifically your endocrine system—as it releases enzymes that help you digest the food you eat. Your pancreas also secretes hormones that regulate your blood sugar levels, which is important for protecting you against the negative health effects that may occur if your blood sugar levels are too high or too low.

Pancreatic cancer was responsible for over 7% of all cancer-related deaths among both men and women in 2018. It affects African-Americans at a rate that is 25% higher than Caucasian-Americans. Pancreatic cancer comes in many forms; however, the most common cancer form, which occurs in 94% of cases, is exocrine adenocarcinoma.

Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer are not apparent or are difficult to identify at early stages of the disease. In fact, for that reason, pancreatic cancer has been called the “silent disease” by the medical community. Signs and symptoms that may occur at later stages of the disease may also be signs and symptoms of non-cancer diseases. Therefore, it is important to consult with a physician to determine if pancreatic cancer is the cause of these symptoms that may occur during later stages of the disease.

In advanced stages, pancreatic cancer can lead to complications that include:

  • Chills and fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach bloating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Painful swelling due to blood clots
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Stools that float or do not sink and have a bad odor due to poor fat digestion
  • Burning sensation in the stomach
  • Upper abdomen or back pain

Causes and Risk Factors of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is more common in men and adults over the age of 45. Over 90% of pancreatic cancer cases occur in individuals over age 55. Individuals who smoke, are obese, or have diabetes are also at risk of developing pancreatic cancer. It may also be inherited, as it tends to run in families with familial pancreatic cancer. Individuals with chronic pancreatitis, or chronic inflammation of the pancreas, are also at risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Tests and Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer may be identified using imaging technologies, such as endoscopic ultrasound and other high-resolution tissue scanning methods, such as MRI and computed tomography (CT or CAT) scans. These tests are also performed to determine if the pancreatic tumor can be surgically removed. A sample of the pancreatic tumor tissue may also be removed from the pancreas through a process called a biopsy during an endoscopic ultrasound to test the tissue cells for genetic changes or expression of tumor-related biomarkers.  

Pancreatic cancer may also be suspected by measuring:

  • Carbohydrate antigen 19-9 (CA19-9) levels; CA19-9 is a tumor marker that is measured at high levels in individuals with pancreatic cancer

Treatment and Care for Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer treatment is most successful when the disease is diagnosed and treated at its early stages. Surgery is an option for only 20% of pancreatic cancer cases because pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed when the disease has already spread to other areas of the body. Radiation therapy and intravenous chemotherapy may be performed to destroy the cancer cells. Chemotherapy medication in the form of a pill may also be administered.