Diseases & Conditions

Pancreatic Cancer

What is the pancreas?

Patient Story: Mr. Cantwell

The pancreas is a thin, long gland behind your stomach next to the duodenum, (the first part of the small intestine) lying across the spine.

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas has two functions:

  • It makes enzymes needed for digestion.
  • It produces hormones, including insulin, for the body to use glucose.

Pancreatic cancer

  • The incidence of pancreatic cancer has increased throughout this century.
  • It is the fourth most common cancer in men.
  • It is the fifth most common cancer in women.
  • Eighty percent of pancreatic cancer occurs in people over age 50.
  • Unlike other cancers, such as colon or breast, it is difficult to detect in it's early stages.

Who is at risk for pancreatic cancer?

  • People with exposure to carcinogens (cancer causing agents) are at an increased risk
  • Though rare, heredity can play a role.
  • Pancreatic cancer is three to four times more common in people who smoke.

What are the symptoms of cancer of the pancreas?

  • Dull, continuous abdominal pain (less pain when leaning forward, more when lying down)
  • Pain in the middle of your back
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and whites of eyes), often accompanied by itching of the skin
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Chronic nausea or diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Enlarged liver and gallbladder
  • Clay or light colored stools

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

  • History of your symptoms
  • Physical examination
  • Lab tests for anemia and blood sugar
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancratogram (ERCP)
  • CT scan or MRCP

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Options might be:

  • An operation to remove the mass
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy

If a surgical cure is not possible, surgery might still be used to relieve an obstruction of the bile duct or stomach.

Follow up care:
  • Control symptoms
  • Eat small frequent meals
  • Rest
  • Pain medication if prescribed
  • Wound care
  • Bile tube care if necessary
  • Resume normal activity
  • A follow-up appointment
Call your doctor if:
  • Skin or eyes become yellow
  • Temperature is over 100 degrees for more than 24 hours
  • Redness, swelling, or unusual drainage from wound
  • Opening of suture line
  • Nausea, vomiting, shaking, or chills

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 11/6/2011...#6900

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