Pancreatic cancer, also called pancreas cancer, occurs when cancer cells form in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas has two different functions:
- It makes enzymes that help digest food in the small intestine
- It makes hormones, such as insulin, that are secreted into the bloodstream Almost all pancreatic cancers start in the cells that make enzymes, and most pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas. The risk of pancreatic cancer increases with age, with most being diagnosed between 60 to 80 years old.
The most common malignant cancer of the pancreas, adenocarcinoma, involves the production of enzymes necessary for digestion. These cells make up the lining of the pancreatic duct (duct cells), through which pancreatic juice containing digestive enzymes flow. Cancer can also occur in the islet cells, which are clusters of cells that produce insulin, but tumors of this type are less common.
Adenocarcinoma is the most common cancer of the pancreas, accounting for 95 percent of cases. Adenocarcinoma involves cells that secrete digestive enzymes. Islet cell carcinoma involves cells that secrete a variety of hormones. Tumors can be functional and produce abnormally high amounts of hormones, or non-functional and not produce any hormones. Most islet cell tumors are malignant, but some are benign, such as insulin-producing islet cell tumors.
Isolated sarcomas and lymphomas can occur in the pancreas, but these are exceedingly rare.
Pseudopapillary neoplasms occur mostly in young women in their teens and twenties.
Pancreatic cancer often develops without early symptoms. The majority of symptoms arise because of the location of the pancreas and its relationship to organs of the digestive system.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
Jaundice occurs when bilirubin, a substance produced in the liver, builds up in the blood. Normally, bilirubin travels down the bile duct and passes through the pancreas just before emptying into the duodenum. However, if the bile duct becomes blocked, the level of bilirubin in blood rises, causing noticeably yellow skin and eyes.
Change of color in urine and stool: Urine may turn orange or the color of iced tea. Stool may turn yellow or reddish, or become grey or chalky-white. These are also symptoms of a blocked bile duct.
Pain occurs when a pancreatic tumor presses against or infiltrates nearby nerves. The pain may be a dull ache, a sensation of bloating or fullness or a burning type discomfort. Patients often find the pain difficult to describe.
Indigestion, lack of appetite, nausea, weight loss: These symptoms may occur when a pancreatic tumor presses against the stomach and small intestine. Nausea and weight loss may also occur if the release of pancreas enzymes is blocked for any reason and the body cannot absorb food completely.
Sudden-onset diabetes or a sudden change in blood-sugar control in diabetics: Diabetes may be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer as well as a risk factor.
Having one or more of the symptoms listed above does not necessarily mean you have pancreatic cancer. However, it is important to discuss any symptoms with your doctor, since they may indicate other health problems.