What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is cancer that’s found in the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ that is part of your digestive system in your tummy. It releases digestive juices that help dissolve the food you eat. It also makes hormones that help you regulate your blood sugar.
What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
It’s important to note that pancreatic cancer might not cause any symptoms, or they might be hard to spot.
Some key symptoms include:
Yellowing in the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
Unexplained weight loss
Pain in your upper tummy or back
Indigestion or bloating
Becoming more thirsty or passing a lot of urine
How common is pancreatic cancer?
In the UK, pancreatic cancer is the 10th most common cancer and about 10,500 people are diagnosed with it every year.
What are the key types of pancreatic cancer?
There are 2 main types of pancreatic cancer: exocrine and endocrine.
Exocrine pancreatic cancer affects the exocrine cells of the pancreas. This means the exocrine ducts and glands are affected – these structures release digestive juices. This is the most common type of pancreatic cancer.
Endocrine pancreatic cancer affects the endocrine gland cells. These glands release hormones to regulate blood sugar levels. This type of cancer is far rarer.
How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?
Testing for pancreatic cancer can be done in a number of ways. If you have symptoms of pancreatic cancer it’s important that you talk to your doctor.
If they think you may have pancreatic cancer, you will be sent to the hospital tests. These tests may include:
Pancreatic cancer blood tests – these may check your blood count, kidney and liver function and general health. There are also 2 markers, called CEA and CA19-9, that can indicate pancreatic cancer. But they’re not always raised in the presence of pancreatic cancer and they can be elevated due to other conditions too
Scans – these might include an ultrasound, PET, MRI or CT
A biopsy – this is where a small number of cells from your pancreas are taken and looked at under a microscope to see if they are cancerous. This can either be taken during an endoscopy or through the skin
A laparoscopy – an operation where a small incision is made to look inside your tummy
Once you’ve had a test for pancreatic cancer, there will be a short wait before you get your test results back from the doctor. If they find that you do have pancreatic cancer, you will be given an appointment to talk about possible treatment options.
How is pancreatic cancer treated?
Specialists from a hospital will decide the best treatment for you.
Your treatment will depend on a few things:
Where your cancer is
Whether you have cancer in other places
Your overall health
Treatment for pancreatic cancer may include:
Surgery – if the cancer is caught early, it may be possible to remove all or part of the pancreas
Chemotherapy – this uses anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells
Radiotherapy – this kills cancer cells by using high-energy rays
Symptom-based treatment – this may help tiredness, weight loss and nausea, with the aim of making you feel more comfortable
These treatments will be discussed with you at your follow-up appointments. You may be recommended one or multiple treatments.
Who’s at risk of getting pancreatic cancer?
Risk factors increase your chance of developing a disease.
For pancreatic cancer, your risk may be higher if:
You’re over the age of 75
You smoke or have smoked
You drink a lot of alcohol
You live with chronic pancreatitis
You’ve had another cancer before
Someone in your family has or had pancreatic cancer
How to prevent pancreatic cancer
You can lower your risk of cancers, including pancreatic cancer by doing the following:
Lose weight if you’re overweight
Drink below the suggested alcohol limit
Eat a healthy, balanced diet
When should I speak to a doctor?
If you’re living with any of the symptoms listed above, speak to a doctor. Catching pancreatic cancer earlier could mean more effective treatment.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi