In 2015, estimates show that 48,960 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and 40,560 individuals will die of the disease. Association data reveals that it’s the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the US, and government statistics show that the five-year survival rate for this type of cancer is only 7.2%.
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month and different organizations all over the globe are putting a spotlight on the disease in order to raise awareness about the condition and find new ways of battling this type of cancer through research.
Here are some of the ways that you can participate in the campaign:
- Donation – Find an organization that conducts pancreatic cancer research and make a monetary contribution towards their work. You can also make a donation to groups that provide financial aid and support to pancreatic cancer patients.
- Join an advocacy – There are different causes that you can join in order to spread the word about pancreatic cancer. You can help an advocacy trend on social media or organize your own event within your community or workplace to raise awareness about the condition.
- Be a source of empowerment – Encourage pancreatic cancer patients and recognize the tough battle they have to experience as they live with the disease. If you have a friend or family member who has this condition, spend time with them and offer your emotional support during this very challenging time in their life.
- Participate in activities in-line with the campaign – Some groups are organizing walks and fun runs to help raise awareness about pancreatic cancer. See if there’s one near your area.
The first step to battling pancreatic cancer is to learn as much as you can about it. Proper knowledge enables you to take care of yourself well, be familiar with symptoms and preventive measures, and be aware of treatments available should you get diagnosed.
Today, we will help you get started in learning about pancreatic cancer. Below is an overview of the disease that will help you grasp what it is, its risk factors, and treatment options.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
The pancreas is located in the digestive system and there are two types of glands found in it—the exocrine and endocrine glands. The exocrine gland aids in food digestion while the endocrine glands releases hormones such as insulin and glucagon that helps in regulating blood sugar levels.
Pancreatic cancer happens when there’s growth of abnormal cells in the pancreas that eventually turns into tumors. Both exocrine and endocrine cells in the pancreas can form into tumors that may develop into cancer.
More than 95% of pancreatic cancer cases are caused by exocrine tumors. While growth due to endocrine cells or pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs) only account for about 4% of growth found in the pancreas. PNETs progress slowly and these tumors are either functional or nonfunctional, which means that they may or may not produce hormones.
Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect at an early stage because the pancreas is deeply situated in the body. Typically, a patient will not show any symptoms until the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage or if it has spread to other parts of the body.
Meanwhile, there are blood tests that help detect high protein levels in the blood, which is a sign of pancreatic cancer. However, this test is not enough to make an accurate diagnosis because increased protein levels are not the only indicator of the disease. Typically, blood tests are done side by side with other screening procedures or used to determine whether a patient is responding to treatment or not.
Signs and Symptoms
Pancreatic cancer signs and symptoms will depend on whether the cancer was formed through exocrine or endocrine tumors.
If the cancer was due to exocrine tumors, the patient may manifest the following symptoms:
- Jaundice – This refers to the yellowing of the eyes and skin due to bilirubin build-up, which is a substance found in the liver. Related symptoms include dark urine, light-colored stool, and itchy skin.
- Pain in the abdomen
- Weight and appetite loss
- Digestive problems
- Enlargement of the gallbladder
- Blood clots
- Irregularities in fatty tissues
Meanwhile pancreatic cancer that originated in the endocrine cells is typically signaled by PNETs. These tumors can generate different hormones, which ultimately leads to symptoms.
It’s important to note that those symptoms can be also indicative of other conditions and not necessarily point to pancreatic cancer. An accurate diagnosis will only be possible after you consulted your doctor and took the necessary examinations.
How to Diagnose Pancreatic Cancer
There are several ways to diagnose pancreatic cancer, but it will first begin with a physical examination and a look at your medical history. At this point, the doctor will assess your risk factors and take note of your symptoms. The preliminary test will focus on the abdomen and lymph nodes to check if there are any signs of growth, build-up, swelling or lumps. Based on the doctor’s evaluation, you may be recommended to take further tests and you may be referred to a specialist in digestive system conditions.
Imaging tests also help in detecting pancreatic cancer. These are procedures that use x-rays, magnetic fields, sound waves, and radioactive substances inside the body in order to have a better view of what’s going on internally. Aside from detecting cancer, imaging tests are also used to determine the extent of cancer spread, a patient’s response to treatment, and any cancer recurrence. Examples of imaging tests include MRI, CT scans, and ultrasound.
Blood test also helps in pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Typically, they are recommended to check for tumor markers, monitor the levels of pancreatic hormones, and determine if treatments are working.
Biopsy may be recommended to confirm if the growth is cancerous or not. This process is done in several ways and may be administered through the skin, tube insertion, or surgery.
Pancreatic cancer can be treated through surgery, ablative treatments or ways of removing the tumor without requiring surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and other forms of medication. Treatment programs vary from patient to patient, because it will depend on what stage the cancer is in and other factors such as existing health conditions. Alternative treatments can also help pancreatic cancer patients in managing pain and coping with stress.
A person’s risk for pancreatic cancer increases due to several factors. Some can be controlled and mostly have something to do with lifestyle choices and health habits. These are:
- Exposure to chemicals
- Diabetes, pancreatitis, liver cirrhosis and other stomach problems
Meanwhile, there are risk factors that are harder to control such as:
- Family history
- Inherited gene changes
Regardless if you have uncontrollable risk factors, you can still lessen your chances of acquiring pancreatic cancer if you choose to live a healthy lifestyle. Basically, all you need to do is get proper nutrition through a balanced diet, maintain an ideal weight through exercise and regular physical activity, get enough hours of sleep each day, and avoid unhealthy habits that can weaken your body. Regular check-ups and physical examinations are also advisable in keeping any disease at bay or at least, detecting and treating them at an early stage.
We hope that this guide help shed light on pancreatic cancer and encourage you to take proactive steps in battling the disease not just this month, but also in the days and years to come.