What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer occurs when the cells within the pancreas grow out of control. Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Pancreatic cancers are hard to diagnose early since the signs and symptoms aren’t obvious, resulting in an advanced-stage diagnosis when treatment options are limited.
Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States, with men having a slightly higher risk than women.
If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, they may order a blood test that looks at a protein called CA 19-9. This is what is called a “tumor marker
If your Ca-19-9 is elevated, they may get a diagnostic computed tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan gives the doctor a detailed 3D scan.
Other scans used include a PET scan and an MRCP.
A positron emission tomography (PET) scan can detect cancer that the CT scan could not by using radioactive sugar. Cancer cells will use sugar much faster than our normal body cells.
A magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is a scan that will specifically show a picture of the pancreas and the surrounding areas.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) is when they take a long flexible tube with a camera on its end through, usually your mouth, to take pictures of the pancreas and the surrounding area.
If the other scans confirm what the CT scan shows, then the final step to confirming you have cancer is taking some tissue from the cancerous areas to test. This is called a biopsy.
Once they have all the information, they will determine your cancer stage. The cancer stage will help your doctor decide how to treat you. Staging is done on a numerical scale of 1-4. The higher the number, the more it has grown.
The general rule of thumb with cancers in your tissue (solid tumor cancers) is if they can remove that tissue, they will do that. There are some reasons they would not be able to remove the tissue. If the tissue is too large, they may need to shrink it by using radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of both. Surgery is not always an option if cancer has spread past the pancreas.
The backbone of pancreatic cancer chemotherapy is gemcitabine and 5-fluorouracil (5-FU). Your doctor may also look into clinical trials as a course of treatment.
Radiation therapy may also be used before, during, or after surgery.
- Heavy alcohol use
- Lack of exercise
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Family history of pancreatic cancer
After completing your therapy, you will follow up with your doctor every 3-6 months for the first 2-3 years. They may repeat your scans and blood work to ensure that the cancer is not returning or growing.
Your doctor might want to see you sooner if they think it is medically necessary.
Things to think about:
- Always get a second opinion. Healthcare professionals are humans and can see things differently.
- A biopsy is a gold standard for diagnosing solid tumor cancers. You should not just start therapy without having one.
- If you are feeling ill, having nausea, or anything out of the ordinary during your treatment, let your treatment team know! They might be able to help you. Remember, they are trying to help you, not make you miserable.
- The best way to fight cancer is to catch it early. So, see your doctor yearly for a physical and screen early, especially if you have risk factors. The slight inconvenience is worth it!
Interested in learning more about Pancreatic screening and symptoms? Check out our next article on this topic.