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Pancreatic cancer: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About pancreatic cancer

The pancreas are a set of a 6-inch long glands located behind the stomach, in the abdominal region. These glands produce digestive juices and hormones (insulin and glucagon).

A majority of pancreatic cancers affect the glands producing digestive enzymes whereas only about 1% affect the gland producing hormones.

Pancreatic cancer: Incidence, age and sex

Pancreatic cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths worldwide. The incidence is higher in men (upto 30% greater than in women) and often seen in people who have crossed 60 years of age.

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer: Diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer is often termed as a “silent killer” because there are no symptoms when the disease is in its early stage. The symptoms in late stage are usually non-specific and varied. Common symptoms may include pain in the upper part of the stomach, weight loss, loss of appetite, and jaundice (yellowish discolouration of skin).

Blood tests such as liver function tests can show a combination of results suggestive of bile duct obstruction. Besides, CT scan and endoscopic ultrasound can be used to identify the location and form of cancer.

Causes and prevention of pancreatic cancer

The risk of pancreatic cancer increases with age, with the incidence being relatively low in people below 40 years of age. Certain risk factors include smoking, low fibre and high-fat diet and exposure to some harmful chemicals. Individuals with history of liver cirrhosis, diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, surgery of upper digestive tract are more prone to developing pancreatic cancer. Moreover, genetic factors like genetic mutations as seen in cases of Lynch syndrome and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, also increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

There are no established guidelines for preventing pancreatic cancer, though one can reduce or abstain from cigarette smoking, which is seen to be responsible for 20–30% of pancreatic cancers. Some studies suggest that certain vitamins like vitamin D, B12, B6 and folate can reduce the risk of development of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer: Complications

Possible complications of pancreatic cancer include blood clots, infections, liver problems, and weight loss. Depression has also been linked to pancreatic cancer, though the mechanism for this is unknown.

Pancreatic cancer: Treatment

Since pancreatic cancer is discovered and diagnosed late, it is difficult to treat it by surgery alone. The treatment modalities include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. If at all, it has not spread yet is difficult to remove, then both radiation therapy and chemotherapy together may be considered. If the tumour has spread to other organs, chemotherapy alone is attempted with drugs like gemcitabine.

The prognosis is generally poor, since it is discovered in an advanced stage in most of the individuals. The survival rate is quite low, with approximately 95% of diagnosed individuals not surviving beyond 5 years.