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Diseases & Conditions

Pancreatic Cancer - Cancer Institute Overview

Taussig Cancer Institute's Program for Gastrointestinal Cancers is a multidisciplinary program that cares for patients with a variety of cancers from the gastrointestinal tract.

Treatment of these cancers requires careful and close collaboration with a number of departments including colorectal surgery, general surgery, gastroenterology, interventional radiology and radiation oncology. Patients are offered a wide variety of clinical trials, which range from large randomized trials sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, cooperative group trials, industry-sponsored trials and institutional local trials of experimental drugs.

Patients can also elect to receive standard of care therapies administered with the latest state-of-the-art techniques.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer, or cancer of the pancreas, is a malignant disease that starts in the ductal cells of the pancreas gland.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Symptoms often include upper abdominal pain that can radiate to the back as well as weight loss and jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and or whites of the eyes). Along with jaundice, a patient may experience unusually dark urine or light colored stools. Other more subtle symptoms may include abdominal bloating, feelings of fullness with less than normal food intake or diarrhea.

How is cancer of the pancreas diagnosed?

This type of cancer is often found on radiographic imaging such as a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). If these scans do not reveal a mass in the pancreas, but a tumor is suspected, more invasive imaging such as endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography or endoscopic ultrasound may be used.

A biopsy may or may not be done right away, depending on whether surgery is being considered.  Unfortunately, though the majority of patients have advanced disease when they are diagnosed, there is no simple, cost effective, low-risk screening available. Therefore, there is no standard recommendation for screening the general population.

Treatment is based on the stage of the disease:  whether it is limited and surgically operable, limited but not operable, or metastatic, in which the cancer has spread to other organs in the body (stage IV).

What are the treatment options?

Surgery should be considered for cancer that has not spread outside the pancreas.  After surgery, radiation or chemotherapy to try to prevent disease recurrence is often considered.

  • If the cancer is limited to the pancreas, but surgery is not an option, then standard treatment options include radiation therapy with chemotherapy or chemotherapy alone.
  • If the cancer has spread to other organs then systemic therapy such as chemotherapy on or off a clinical trial should be considered.