Cancer has always been one of humankind’s most disruptive illnesses. This is especially the case if a patient also has close family members who will be significantly affected by this devastating news.
Cancer drastically changes the daily life of the patient and those who are close to them. While many can hope to get cured through proper cancer care, the process entirely depends on how early the disease is detected. If not found sooner, the cancer may already reach the point where it is difficult to treat.
Among its many variations, one of the deadliest affects the pancreas. Early detection of pancreatic cancer is considered extremely difficult to do. The organ is located deep inside the body, making it hard to see or feel any signs such as lumps or unusual growths.
In the United States, over 6,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer annually. While it only makes up around 3% of cancer cases in the country, it makes up 7% of all cancer-related deaths.
In the Philippines, there were 3,123 diagnosed with the disease in 2019. This is why pancreatic cancer is also generally known as the silent killer. If you want to learn more details about this disease and how to diagnose pancreatic cancer early, you may use the infographic below as your guide.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer happens when the cells in the pancreas, the gland responsible for digestion and blood sugar regulation, undergo changes triggered by mutations in their DNA. These cells multiply and grow uncontrollably until they form a tumor. More commonly, it can begin around the lining of the ducts that carry digestive enzymes out of the organ.
Unfortunately, signs and symptoms are almost non-existent in its early stages when it is more likely to be cured until the cancer has already spread to other nearby organs.
Types of Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer can come in several forms and share many symptoms. Here are the different kinds and the groups they belong to:
Exocrine pancreatic cancer develops when exocrine cells (producer of digestive enzymes) mutate and grow in and around the exocrine gland and ducts of the pancreas. This gland is responsible for breaking down carbohydrates, proteins, acids, and fats in the body.
This type of cancer makes up more than 95% of all cancers involving the pancreas. They may also include the following sub-types:
This is the most common type of pancreatic cancer, which is also known as ductal carcinoma. For this type, the cancer is located inside the lining of the pancreas’s ducts.
The tumor from this type comes from a benign cyst known as intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm (IPMN). But compared to the other subtypes, it is less likely to spread to other organs, making it relatively easier to treat.
This is more aggressive with a rather grim prognosis than other pancreatic cancer types because the tumor shows traits from ductal adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
This type of pancreatic cancer comprises squamous cells, which are not found in normal pancreatic tissue. Due to the extreme rarity of cases for this particular sub-type, medical experts have yet to fully comprehend this disease and need further research.
This type of pancreatic cancer can develop from cells located in the organ’s endocrine gland. When this happens, it can affect how hormones and insulin are released into the bloodstream. But, this type of cancer is also considered rare as it makes up less than 5% of all pancreatic cancer cases.
Benign Precancerous Lesions
It is not uncommon for lesions (tissue damages) to be found in the pancreas, and these will not necessarily mean they are malignant immediately. In most cases, it is observed regularly to ensure that it does not become harmful.
Signs and Symptoms
Much like any other disease, patients with pancreatic cancer can experience multiple symptoms. Take a look at some of the most common signs when this develops.
Back or stomach pain
Dull pain located around the upper abdomen or the middle back is a common symptom experienced by many pancreatic cancer patients. The discomfort can be caused by a tumor formed in the pancreas, which puts pressure on the spine.
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
Jaundice is the changing pigment of the skin due to high levels of bilirubin (a yellowish pigment that is the result of the normal breakdown of red blood cells) and serves as a serious symptom of pancreatic cancer. Apart from the yellowing of the skin and eyes, it can also cause dark urine, pale stool, and itchy skin.
Unintentional weight loss and poor appetite
While it is not exclusive to pancreatic cancer, extreme weight loss is always a sign that something is wrong with the body. Symptoms can include weakened appetite and trouble digesting food.
Nausea and vomiting
Other signs of pancreatic cancer can include nausea and frequent vomiting caused by a growing tumor, which places pressure on certain organs of the digestive system.
Bloating or swelling of the abdomen
Because pancreatic cancer can affect the digestive system, symptoms can also include bloating or a swollen abdomen. Some tumors may grow and block vital passages in the body that prevent the flow of enzymes and other cells.
Fatigue is a common symptom of illnesses other than pancreatic cancer. But, extreme levels of exhaustion can also be a sign that should not be ignored.
Some cases of pancreatic cancer can trigger a sudden or late development of diabetes, disrupting the secretion and use of insulin, which can cause sugar levels to fluctuate.
Pancreatic cancer detection and diagnosis can be done using a variety of medical tests. Here are the most common and what they can do:
Imaging techniques are often used to look for any abnormalities in the body. When searching for signs of malignant growth, a combination of x-ray, CT scan, MRI, and other computerized technology is used.
Blood tests and tumor markers
Blood tests can help determine the presence of proteins that are shed by pancreatic cancer cells. While far from accurate, these tests can help understand how the disease responds to treatment.
This is a surgical procedure where a small tissue sample is taken to determine if the cells are malignant. It is performed in a few different ways for a more accurate diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
Much like other cancer types, pancreatic cancer can be treated in several ways. However, treatments can vary depending on the severity of the condition.
Around 20% of patients with pancreatic cancer are able to have the tumor surgically removed because the cancer has already spread after it has been found. Depending on the complexity of the case, success rates for the procedure can vary.
This treatment uses strong chemicals that kill fast-growing cancerous cells in the body. Different types of chemotherapy treatments can be used and are typically done in intervals.
Radiation therapy uses high-dose radiation to slow down the growth of cancerous cells by damaging their DNA. It can also be used to shrink the size of tumors in affected areas.
Targeted therapy deals with prescribing medication that attacks specific cells in the body. It aims to control how cancer cells grow, spread, and divide throughout the treatment.
Rather than using medication, immunotherapy uses the body’s immune system and teaches it to become stronger. This is done by boosting or changing the body’s natural defense to seek and attack cancer cells.
While early detection gives better chances of survival, doing what is necessary for prevention will always be the best practice. Here are a few ways a patient can reduce their chances of developing pancreatic cancer:
Avoid tobacco products
Long-term smoking is often linked to numerous types of health problems. This includes increasing the risks of developing cancer in any part of the body.
Stay clear of alcohol
It is shown that drinking alcohol can increase the risks of cancer development later in life. It can also cause further damage to organ tissues and influence hormone levels in the body.
Maintain a healthy weight
Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of cancer development. It can also help treatment progress more effectively and increase the chances of survival.
Overcoming Pancreatic Cancer
Cancer is one of the deadliest diseases that affects millions of lives worldwide. Among the different variants, pancreatic cancer is known as the silent killer because symptoms typically do not appear until the disease has spread. As a result, the treatment success rate can be lower the later it is found.
To prevent pancreatic or any form of cancer, it is crucial to maintain good health. This includes getting regular check-ups with your physician for early detection. For world-class healthcare facilities and treatments for any form of cancer and other health conditions, visit Makati Medical Center today.