The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen that lies behind the lower part of the stomach. This organ is responsible for producing juices that aid in digestion. It also produces insulin and other hormones that help the body to absorb sugar and control blood sugar.

Pancreatic cancer occurs when cancerous cells form and grow within the pancreas, and, often, pancreatic cancer treatments are limited because the cancer is often discovered in its advanced stages.

Before we take a more in-depth look at pancreatic cancer treatments, let’s take a few moments to learn a little bit about the cancer itself.


What Is Pancreatic Cancer?


Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of the pancreas. This form of cancer can be especially difficult to diagnose because of some different factors.

First of all, there are no noticeable signs or symptoms in the very early stages of pancreatic cancer. When symptoms do start to appear, they are considered very general. General means that they can indicate any number of other illnesses, so it can be challenging to look at the symptoms and pinpoint them as pancreatic cancer.

Finally, because the pancreas is hidden behind other organs, such as the stomach, liver, small intestine, gallbladder, spleen, and bile ducts, it can make it difficult to notice any physical changes that may point to cancer.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer can be especially hard to diagnose based on symptoms alone. That is because the main symptoms are so generic they can indicate many different diseases and illnesses. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in the upper abdomen and back
  • New-onset diabetes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Jaundice – yellowing of the skin and the white of the eyes
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark urine
  • Bloating/feeling of fullness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Indigestion

While looking at the list above, it is easy to see how pancreatic cancer can easily be missed in the early stages or even misdiagnosed as something else. While these symptoms do not necessarily mean a person does have cancer, it is essential that patients bring up any of these symptoms to their doctor, so they can, at the very least, be marked down on their records for future references.



Testing for Pancreatic Cancer

boy holding a bottle with pancreas

Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of the pancreas. This form of cancer can be especially difficult to diagnose because of some different factors.

First of all, there are no noticeable signs or symptoms in the very early stages of pancreatic cancer. When symptoms do start to appear, they are considered very general. General means that they can indicate any number of other illnesses, so it can be challenging to look at the symptoms and pinpoint them as pancreatic cancer.

Finally, because the pancreas is hidden behind other organs, such as the stomach, liver, small intestine, gallbladder, spleen, and bile ducts, it can make it difficult to notice any physical changes that may point to cancer.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer can be especially hard to diagnose based on symptoms alone. That is because the main symptoms are so generic they can indicate many different diseases and illnesses. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in the upper abdomen and back
  • New-onset diabetes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Jaundice – yellowing of the skin and the white of the eyes
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark urine
  • Bloating/feeling of fullness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Indigestion

While looking at the list above, it is easy to see how pancreatic cancer can easily be missed in the early stages or even misdiagnosed as something else. While these symptoms do not necessarily mean a person does have cancer, it is essential that patients bring up any of these symptoms to their doctor, so they can, at the very least, be marked down on their records for future references.


After extensive testing, a doctor will decide if a patient does have pancreatic cancer. Before talking about treatment options, the doctor will discuss what stage the patient is at. Staging is a way of classifying any cancer by how much it has spread.

  • Stage 0 – Abnormal pancreatic cells have been found in the lining of the pancreas. These cells can become cancer.
  • Stage 1 – Cancer has been detected but has remained only in the pancreas. Based on the tumor size, this stage is divided into 1A or 1B. 1A means the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller while 1B means the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters.
  • Stage 2 – The cancerous tumor is large in size, or it has begun to spread to lymph nodes. This stage is also broken up into two categories: 2A, which means the tumor is larger than 4 centimeters, and 2B, which indicates that the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3 – Cancer has spread to the nearby major blood vessels or four or more lymph nodes near the pancreas.
  • Stage 4 – Cancer has spread to distant organs beyond the pancreas, including the liver, lungs, and peritoneal cavity.

By staging the cancer in this way, the doctor, or team of doctors, will be able to better assess the patient’s needs and the best pancreatic cancer treatment for them.

surgery


Top 6 Pancreatic Cancer Treatments

Depending on the stage of the patient's cancer, some different treatment options may be available to them. Depending on what their oncologist believes is the best form of treatment, one or more of these options may be made available to the patient.


Surgery

Surgery

When it comes to pancreatic cancer treatment options, many patients will undergo surgery in an attempt to remove the tumor. Depending on the stage of the cancer, there are a few different surgical options that can be done.

  • Whipple Procedure – A procedure where the head of the pancreas is removed along with the gallbladder, the bile duct, and part of the stomach and small intestine. Enough of the pancreas is left to produce digestive juices and insulin.
  • Total Pancreatectomy – This procedure requires the removal of the whole pancreas, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, the common bile duct, gallbladder and the spleen, along with nearby lymph nodes.
  • Distal Pancreatectomy – Requires the removal of the body and the tail of the pancreas. If the cancer has already spread to the spleen at this point, then it may be removed as well.
  • Biliary Bypass – If a tumor is blocking the bile duct and is causing a buildup of bile in the gallbladder, this operation will involve cutting the gallbladder or bile duct in the area just before the blockage. The doctor will then sew it to the small intestine to create a new pathway around the blockage.
  • Endoscopic Stent Placement – Again, if a tumor is blocking the bile duct, this procedure may be done to put a stent in to drain bile that may have built up in the area.
  • Gastric Bypass – If the cancer has spread and a tumor is blocking food from the stomach, this surgery involves sewing the stomach directly to the small intestine. This allows the patient to eat normally.


Radiation Therapy

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or other particles to destroy cancerous cells. The most common type of radiation treatment for pancreatic cancer is external beam radiation therapy. This therapy uses radiation from a machine outside the body. The patient’s oncologist will create a schedule for them that will tell them what type of radiation will be needed and how often.

That being said, there are different ways that radiation therapy can be given:

  • Traditional Radiation – This therapy, also known as standard faction radiation or conventional radiation, is made up of daily treatments of lower doses of radiation and is given over a period of five to six weeks.
  • Stereotactic Body Radiation (SBRT) – This therapy, also known as Cyberknife therapy, is a newer type of radiation therapy that provides more localized treatment in fewer sessions. This treatment is generally higher in dose and given over as few as five days.
  • Proton Beam – This therapy is a type of external beam radiation therapy that uses protons rather than x-rays. These protons can destroy cancer cells, and this treatment also lessens the amount of healthy tissue that has to receive the radiation.


Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy

This method uses drugs to destroy cancer cells by ending the cells’ ability to grow and divide. The oncologist will determine the best way to use this therapy as it can include multiple drugs and multiple rounds depending on the cancer and its stage.



Targeted Therapy

genes

These types of treatments target the cancer’s specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to the cancer’s continuous growth and survival. The hope is that this treatment blocks further growth and spread of cancerous cells.



Immunotherapy

cancer cell

Also known as biologic therapy, Immunotherapy is designed to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. According to Cancer.Net, immunotherapy “uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target, or restore immune system function.” Immune checkpoint inhibitors, which include PD-1 antibodies and pembrolizumab (Keytruda), could be an option for treating pancreatic cancer.



Systemic Therapies

capsules

Also known as biologic therapy, Immunotherapy is designed to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. According to Cancer.Net, immunotherapy “uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target, or restore immune system function.” Immune checkpoint inhibitors, which include PD-1 antibodies and pembrolizumab (Keytruda), could be an option for treating pancreatic cancer.



Is Any One Treatment Better Than the Other?

When it comes to pancreatic cancer treatments, no single treatment option is better than the other. What it all comes down to is the stage and speed of progression the individual patient is dealing with. That is why, in most cases, the patient works alongside not just one doctor, but a team that has their best interest at heart.

By working with their cancer treatment team, the patient will receive a treatment plan tailored to their needs.

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