Are You at Risk for Pancreatic Cancer? Know the Symptoms and How to Fight It
Pancreatic cancer is the 4th leading cause of death due to cancer in both men and women. In fact, pancreatic cancer is the only type of cancer that kills over 50% of its victims within 5 years of diagnosis. It is often diagnosed late because symptoms are vague and non-specific. The human body has many different parts to it, each responsible for a specific task. One of these organs is the pancreas – located just below the stomach. Its job is to produce enzymes that help break down food before it enters our bodies, however, sometimes this organ begins to malfunction leading to problems with digestion. PC is a type of cancer that can affect any area of the pancreas, causing a person to experience weight loss and pain. If caught early enough pancreatic cancer is highly treatable; however, if left untreated it can spread rapidly throughout the body.
What Is Pancreatic Cancer?
PC is a type of cancer that starts in the pancreas. The pancreas is located behind the stomach and helps digest food. It produces enzymes that help break down protein, fats, and carbs. There are two types: ductal adenocarcinoma (which makes up about 80% of cases) and acinar carcinoma (the remaining 20%). Ductal adenocarcinomas start in the cells lining the small tubes called ducts that carry digestive juices from the glands to the intestine. Acinar cancers begin in the exocrine cells that make up the majority of the pancreas. These cells produce enzymes that aid digestion.
- Causes: There are many factors that contribute to the development of PC. These include genetics, environmental exposures, diet, obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption, diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, and family history.
- Genetics: A person’s genetic makeup may increase their risk of developing PC. People who have inherited certain genes associated with pancreatic cancer are at higher risk than others. Genetic mutations that cause pancreatic cancer include KRAS, CDKN2A, TP53, SMAD4, DPC4, BRCA2, ATM, BRIP1, PALB2, STK11, MLH1, MSH2, MUTYH, PMS2, EPCAM, FANCM, CHEK2, POLD1, RAD50, RIT1, PTEN, TGFBR2, VHL, and NF1.
Exposure to chemicals, radiation, and viruses can lead to the development of pancreatitis. Exposure to asbestos, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, chromate, diesel exhaust particles, ionizing radiation, nitrosamines, nickel, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), solvents, vinyl chloride, welding fumes, and wood smoke causes PC.
- Diet: Certain foods and beverages have been shown to promote the development of pancreatic cancers. Foods high in fat content, especially saturated fats, have been linked to pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. High intake of red meat, processed meats, and fried food products increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. In contrast, diets rich in fruits and vegetables decrease the risk of pancreatic cancers. Drinking two alcoholic drinks per day double the risk of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas compared to drinking less than one drink per week. Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of pancreatitis and pancreatic cancers. Tobacco use causes DNA damage and oxidative stress, both of which play a role in the development of pancreatic tumors.
- Obesity: Being overweight or obese increases the risk of pancreatobiliary tract cancers, particularly pancreatic cancer. Obesity is caused by excess calories consumed over time. Overweight people tend to gain weight due to eating too much food and not exercising enough. Obese individuals often consume more calories than they expend, leading to increased body mass index (BMI). BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by his or her height in meters squared. A BMI between 25 and 30 indicates overweight; a BMI greater than 30 indicates obesity.
- Smoking: Cigarette smoking is a major factor in the development of pancreatitis and pancreatobiliary tract cancers. Cigarette smokers are twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers. Smokers experience inflammation in the pancreas and gallbladder, which can lead to pancreatitis and bile duct cancer. Additionally, cigarette smoke contains thousands of chemical compounds, some of which are known carcinogens. One of these carcinogens is benzo(a)pyrene, which is present in tobacco smoke. Benzo(a)pyrenes are mutagenic and carcinogenic.
What are the Risk Factors?
The risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer are not well understood. However, some studies suggest that smoking cigarettes may increase the risk. A study conducted at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine showed that people who smoke cigarettes are twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer than those who do not. Another study suggests that obesity may play a role in the development of pancreatic cancer. People who are obese are more likely to develop pancreatic tumors compared to normal-weight individuals. In addition, diabetes increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. Diabetes causes damage to blood vessels, which can lead to poor circulation and increased inflammation. Inflammation can cause abnormal cell growth and mutations.
Diagnosing pancreatic cancer can be difficult due to its location in the body. Doctors often use imaging tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer. Imaging tests include CT scans, MRI scans, ultrasound exams, and endoscopies. If doctors suspect pancreatic cancer, they will perform biopsies to confirm their diagnosis. A biopsy involves removing a sample of tissue for examination under a microscope.
Treatment options depend on the stage of pancreatic cancer. You can treat it in Early-stage with surgery. Surgery removes the tumor and any surrounding lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are groups of organs that filter out bacteria and viruses. Surgeons remove these lymph nodes if they find them enlarged or swollen. After surgery, patients receive chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill off cancer cells. Patients with advanced-stage pancreatic cancer cannot undergo surgery. Instead, they receive radiation therapy, targeted therapies, or both. Radiation therapy kills cancer cells directly by damaging DNA. Targeted therapies work by blocking specific molecules that encourage cancer cells to multiply.
There are three different prognoses for pancreatic cancer. If a patient has a localized disease that does not extend beyond the organ wall, their chances of survival are good. However, if cancer spreads outside the organ wall, the prognosis becomes poor. There are treatments for both situations, depending on how far cancer has progressed. Patients who have stage IV pancreatic cancer do not respond to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Surgery, immunotherapy, and palliative care are some options for treating pancreatic cancer.
How do I know if I have pancreatic cancer?
You should do regular tests right away if you notice any of these symptoms. You might need further tests to determine whether the problem is related to pancreatic cancer. If you have PC, you should go to a specialist who treats pancreatic cancer patients. Your doctor will ask about your medical history and perform a physical exam. He or she may order blood tests to check liver function, test results, and tumor markers. Imaging tests such as CT scans, MRI scans, ultrasound exams, endoscopy, and biopsy may be done to look for tumors or the spread of the disease. A PET scan may also be done to find out whether cancer has spread.
When should I seek treatment?
If you think you have pancreatic cancer, talk to your healthcare provider immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment are important. Waiting could mean that cancer grows larger before you detect it. The cancer spreads rapidly. Treatment options depend on how advanced the disease is. Surgery often curing cancer is local. It is possible to give radiation therapy after surgery. Chemotherapy sometimes happens especially for advanced cancers. There are many treatments for PC. Talk with your doctor about what treatment plan would work best for you.