Pancreatic Cancer

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Many of the estimated 37,000 Americans diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007 didn’t even know what the pancreas was or what function it played in their bodies. They soon learned that the pancreas is an important gland that is vital to proper digestion and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The pancreas produces enzymes needed to help break down food so the body can absorb nutrients and minerals. It also produces the hormones that control the level of sugar in the blood. Pancreatic cancer occurs when something goes awry with cells in the pancreas, causing uncontrolled cell growth and the ability of these cancer cells to invade other tissues and organs.

The number of Americans diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year continues to rise. In 2007, an estimated 37,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer were diagnosed with almost equal numbers in men and women. Certain risk factors, including age, smoking, family history, race, diabetes and obesity may increase the likelihood that an individual will develop pancreatic cancer. According to the American Cancer Society 2007 Facts & Figures, African Americans have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer compared to individuals of Asian, Hispanic or Caucasian descent. High rates of diabetes, a higher smoking rate in African–American men and higher obesity rate in African–American women likely contribute to this disparity. Since the exact causes of pancreatic cancer are not yet well understood, more research is vital to take steps toward early diagnosis of the disease and toward finding a cure.

Cancer of the pancreas is sometimes called a "silent" disease because symptoms are not usually present in early stages of the disease. Many patients have advanced disease by the time the cancer causes symptoms that are noticeable to the patient and doctors. When patients do have symptoms, they are often vague and may indicate a variety of disorders in the body. Patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer often present with symptoms of jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), abdominal and/or back pain, unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite.

Since symptoms are not always obvious and often develop gradually, diagnosing pancreatic cancer can be especially difficult. If an individual has symptoms that suggest pancreatic cancer, a variety of tests may be performed to make an accurate diagnosis. Doctors will typically use imaging tests to obtain visual information about the pancreas and surrounding tissues. The most common imaging studies used to diagnose pancreatic cancer are computed tomography (CT) scans and two endoscopic procedures: endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). These tests are best performed by gastroenterologists who are familiar with diagnosing pancreatic cancer.

Individuals diagnosed with pancreatic cancer should seek medical attention from hospitals and doctors who are experienced in caring for people with this disease. With more experience, hospitals or doctors may have greater knowledge of the disease and treatment options.

Treatments for pancreatic cancer depend on both the location of the tumor and the extent of its growth. Surgery to remove the tumor offers the best chance for long term control of all types of pancreatic cancer. In general, a pancreatic tumor is able to be removed surgically if it has not moved beyond the pancreas and the tumor has not grown around major arteries. Additionally, there are two chemotherapy drugs and one targeted therapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of pancreatic cancer. Radiation therapy is also available, though its use in pancreatic cancer is highly debated because studies have shown varying results. Further research is needed to determine the usefulness of radiation therapy both alone and together with chemotherapy.

The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer often leaves individuals and families feeling overwhelmed and isolated. It is important for people to know that they do not have to face this cancer alone. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s Patient and Liaison Services (PALS) program is a helpline for patients and family members, offering comprehensive information about the latest research and treatment options. Callers to PALS are connected with dedicated, trained staff members who provide information and resources about the diagnosis, treatment options, clinical trials, diet and nutrition, and more. All these services are provided free of charge. PALS Associates are available Monday through Friday 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Pacific Time toll free at (877) 272–6226 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is the only national organization creating hope in a comprehensive way through research, patient support, community outreach and advocacy for a cure. The organization raises money for direct private funding of research–and advocates for more aggressive federal research funding of medical breakthroughs in prevention, diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network fills the void of information and options by giving patients and caregivers reliable, personalized information they need to make informed decisions. And, by helping individuals and communities across the country work together to raise awareness and funds to find a cure for pancreatic cancer, we create a sense of hope and community for those affected by pancreatic cancer.

To learn more about free educational events in your area, advocacy efforts, or pancreatic cancer information, visit

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