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Pancreatic Cancer

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the pancreas. It accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the U.S. and about 7% of all cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. Pancreatic cancer is diagnosed slightly more commonly in men than in women.

The pancreas sits just behind the stomach, about the size of a hand, and is important for digestion because it creates the enzymes that break down sugars, fats and starches. The pancreas also makes hormones that regulate blood sugar levels and appetite, stimulate stomach acids and alert your stomach when it is time to empty.

What are the Most Common Types of Pancreatic Cancer?

  • Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is the most common type of pancreatic cancer, making up about 95% of cancers in the exocrine pancreas. It occurs when exocrine cells, which make up most of the pancreas and form the exocrine glands and ducts, start to grow out of control. Exocrine glands are responsible for releasing enzymes into the intestines to help you digest foods (especially fats).
  • Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) are a less common type, making up less than 2% of pancreatic cancers, but tend to have better outcomes. These tumors start in neuroendocrine cells, a special kind of cell found in the pancreas that helps to make important hormones like insulin and glucagon (which help control blood sugar levels).

What are the Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer?

  • Tobacco use. The risk of pancreatic cancer is twice as high for people who smoke, and cigarette smoking is linked to about 25% of pancreatic cancer diagnoses.
  • Being overweight or gaining excess weight as an adult, especially around the waistline.
  • Diabetes. Pancreatic cancer is more common in people with diabetes, especially those with type 2 diabetes.
  • Chronic pancreatitis, the long-term inflammation of the pancreas, often seen with heavy alcohol use and smoking.
  • Workplace exposure to certain chemicals found in dry cleaning and metal working industries.
  • Age. The risk increases as people age, and the average age at the time of diagnosis is 70.
  • Family history with pancreatic cancer.

Is Screening Available?

Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect early, even during routine physical exams, because people usually have no symptoms until the cancer gets larger or spreads.

People who are at higher risk or have a family history can get genetic testing to see if they have inherited conditions that could lead to pancreatic cancer. At Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Institute, we have a High-Risk Pancreas Cancer Screening Clinic led by John Lyons, MD, a surgical oncologist, that identifies patients at higher-than-average risk of pancreas cancer through the use of EON technology and enrolls them in a screening program for early detection of pancreatic cancer.

Learn more about Our Lady of the Lake Physician Group surgical oncology and medical oncology.

What are the Treatment Options?

Curing pancreatic cancer requires a combination of surgery, such as the robotic whipple, and chemotherapy, and oftentimes radiation therapy.