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What You Need to Know About Pancreatic Cancer

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Pancreatic cancer is a formidable adversary within the realm of oncology, notorious for its stealthy nature and often devastating consequences. The pancreas, a crucial organ nestled deep within the abdomen, plays dual roles in digestion and blood sugar regulation. When cancer invades this organ, it tends to progress stealthily, often evading early detection until advanced stages, thereby posing significant challenges in treatment and management.

Research efforts continually strive to unravel the complexities of pancreatic cancer biology, seeking novel therapeutic targets and more effective treatment strategies. From exploring immunotherapies to investigating precision medicine approaches tailored to individual genetic profiles, the quest to enhance early detection methods and improve treatment outcomes remains paramount in the scientific community’s endeavors.

How to treat pancreatic cancer?

Here are different ways of pancreatic cancer treatment:

  • Radiation therapy. It may be used in combination with surgery or chemotherapy. It utilizes high-energy radiation to target and destroy cancer cells. It can be given externally using a machine or internally through implants near the tumor site.
  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is administered after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells or before surgery to shrink the tumor, making it more operable. Newer chemotherapy drugs and combinations are continuously being researched to improve outcomes and reduce side effects.
  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy involves drugs that specifically target certain abnormalities in cancer cells, such as those that help cancer cells grow and spread. For pancreatic cancer, drugs like erlotinib or sunitinib might be used to target specific pathways involved in cancer progression.
  • Surgery. Surgery is a common treatment if the cancer is localized and hasn’t spread extensively. A Whipple procedure involves removing the head of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, the gallbladder, and sometimes a portion of the stomach and bile ducts. For tumors in the body or tail of the pancreas, distal pancreatectomy might be performed. However, surgery might not be an option if the cancer has advanced significantly or spread to other organs.

Functional profiling is a laboratory process that can use your own cells to determine which treatment or drug combinations are most likely to cure your cancer and allow you to survive the treatment. You can get more information about functional profiling from the Nagourney Cancer Institute.

What are the side effects of pancreatic cancer?

  • Weight loss. Weight loss without any apparent reason or change in diet or exercise is another significant symptom. Pancreatic cancer can disrupt the body’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrients, leading to unintended and unexplained weight loss. This often occurs concurrently with a loss of appetite and a feeling of early satiety even when eating small amounts of food.
  • Abdominal pain. This discomfort might begin mildly and intermittently but can progress to become persistent and more severe as the cancer advances. This pain can sometimes radiate to the back, which adds to the complexity of diagnosing pancreatic cancer as it can be mistaken for back problems or other digestive issues.
  • Digestive problems. Changes in digestion might occur, leading to symptoms like nausea, vomiting, or an upset stomach. This could be due to the tumor affecting the pancreas’ ability to produce digestive enzymes or causing blockages in the digestive tract.
  • New-onset diabetes or worsening of existing diabetes. In some cases, pancreatic cancer can cause diabetes due to the tumour affecting insulin production. Sudden onset diabetes in people with no prior history or existing diabetes becoming harder to control might indicate pancreatic cancer.
  • Changes in stool. Some individuals might experience changes in stool, such as oily or fatty consistency, which can result from malabsorption due to inadequate pancreatic enzyme production.
  • Fatigue and weakness. Cancer can cause systemic effects on the body, leading to overall weakness, fatigue, and a lack of energy even after adequate rest.
  • Jaundice. When the tumor obstructs the bile ducts, it can cause jaundice, characterized by yellowing of the skin and eyes. Additionally, dark urine and pale stools might occur due to the disrupted flow of bile.

How to avoid pancreatic cancer

  • Manage chronic conditions. Conditions like diabetes and chronic pancreatitis have been linked to pancreatic cancer. Managing these conditions effectively through proper medical care and lifestyle adjustments may reduce the risk.
  • Medical check-ups and screenings. Regular health check-ups can aid in early detection. While there aren’t specific screening tests for pancreatic cancer for those without symptoms or a family history, being proactive about health check-ups can help identify potential issues early.
  • Seek prompt medical attention. Be attentive to any symptoms that may indicate pancreatic issues, such as persistent abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, jaundice, or changes in digestion. Timely medical consultation can aid in early diagnosis and treatment.

Finally, raising awareness about risk factors such as smoking, obesity, family history, and certain genetic syndromes plays a crucial role in early detection and prevention. Encouraging lifestyle modifications and fostering advocacy for increased funding toward pancreatic cancer research are pivotal steps toward combatting this formidable disease and improving patient outcomes.

Jeffrey Bradley is a freelance health writer. He is not affiliated with the Nagourney Cancer Institute.

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