Apple CEO Steve Jobs with iPhone4
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Pancreatic Cancer in the Limelight

Pancreatic cancer has gained attention from the diagnoses of several prominent figures, including Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who was diagnosed in 2003 and died Oct. 5, 2011. Jobs had an islet cell neuroendocrine tumor, a rare form of the disease. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and actor Patrick Swayze have also faced pancreatic cancer. Swayze died in 2009. The lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 65.

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Posterior view of the digestive system
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What is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is a 6-inch-long spongy, tube-shaped organ located in the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach. It has two major jobs in the body: to make digestive juices (enzymes) that help the intestines break down food, and to produce hormones -- including insulin -- that regulate the body's use of sugars and starches. Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells grow, divide, and spread in the tissues of the pancreas.

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Yellow eye due to obstructive jaundice
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Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is called a "silent" disease because symptoms typically do not show up in the early stages. But as the cancer grows and spreads, pain often develops in the upper abdomen and sometimes spreads to the back. The pain may become worse after the person eats or lies down. Other symptoms may include jaundice, nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, weakness, and depression.

 

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A cigarette in a woman's hand
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Causes of Pancreatic Cancer

Although the exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not known, smoking is the main risk factor, with smokers at least 2 times more likely to have the disease than nonsmokers. Age is also related, with the disease usually striking after age 45. Diabetes is also linked to pancreatic cancer since it's a risk factor and as a symptom of the disease. Other risks include chronic pancreatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. And family history of pancreatic cancer, high fat diet, obesity, and lack of exercise may also play a part.

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Colored CT scan of metastatic pancreatic cancer
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Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer

The challenge of this disease is finding it early. A doctor cannot see or feel a tumor during a routine exam. To help make the diagnosis (and determine the most appropriate treatment), imaging tests are performed (such as an ultrasound or CT scan) to view pictures of the abdomen and determine the extent of the problem. The green region shown in this colorized CT scan appears to be cancer in the pancreas and liver. The diagnosis comes from a biopsy -- taking a tissue sample from the tumor -- performed either with a needle through the skin or during an operation.

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Scalpel in surgeon's gloved hand
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Treatment: Surgery

Surgery can cure the cancer if it has not spread past the pancreas. Since side effects depend on the extent of the surgery, the tumor is removed leaving as much of the normal pancreas intact as possible. Unfortunately, with pancreatic cancer, the malignant cells usually have spread past the pancreas at the point of diagnosis. Surgery still may be performed, even if the tumor is too large to remove. The surgery would involve procedures to help lessen some of the symptoms and prevent certain problems related to the size of the cancerous mass.

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Particle accelerator cancer treatment on patient
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Treatment: Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-powered radiation to kill cancer cells. Radiation is usually given five days a week for several weeks or months. This schedule helps to protect normal tissue by spreading out the total dose of radiation. Radiation is also being studied as a way to kill cancer cells that remain in the area after surgery. Radiation therapy can help relieve pain or digestive problems caused by large cancerous masses.

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Chemotherapy treatment
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Treatment: Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells and stop them from growing or multiplying. Treatment may consist of just one drug or a combination of drugs. It may be given by mouth or by injection. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body, making chemotherapy a good choice for cancer that has spread. It is also useful after surgery to kill any cancer cells left behind.

 

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Nodules on the surface of a pancreatic cancer cell
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Treatment: Targeted Therapy

Newer drugs on the market have the ability to attack specific parts of the cancer cells. Targeted therapies appear to have fewer side effects than chemotherapy and are less harmful to normal cells. Targeted therapy is currently being studied for treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Shown here is a color enhanced, magnified view of a pancreatic cancer cell.

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Scientists working at National Cancer Institute
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New Anticancer Treatment: Immunotherapy

Also called biological therapy, immunotherapy aims to boost a person's immune system to fight disease. Immunotherapy for pancreatic cancer is being actively researched, along with the investigation into vaccines that arm the immune system to attack cancer.

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Family Supporting Patient Getting Doctor Diagnosis
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Treatment: Palliative Therapy

Palliative therapy is used to ease symptoms and manage pain regardless of the stage of the disease or the need for other therapies. The goal of palliative care is to improve quality of life not just in the body, but in the mind and spirit. While palliative therapies are clearly appropriate at the very advanced stages of the disease, they are also helpful when given in tandem with other cancer treatments still working to fight the disease.

 

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Group Holding Hands in a Circle
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Getting Support

Living with pancreatic cancer isn't easy; a support system is critical to help cope with the emotional and practical aspects of this aggressive disease. Many avenues for support exist within the local community and beyond, both for the patient and their family and friends. These organizations exist to help navigate the day-to-day treatment issues and the "big picture" worries about the future.

 

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Woman running on country road
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Is Prevention Possible?

Although there's no one definite action you can take to prevent pancreatic cancer, start by avoiding the risk factors you can control.

  • If you smoke, quit now.
  • If your diet is high in fat, work to eat more healthfully.
  • Adopt a regular exercise routine, since exercise can help prevent diabetes and obesity -- two risk factors for the disease.

 

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 05/05/2016 Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 05, 2016

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

(1)      Bloomberg via Getty Images
(2)      WebMD composite / 3D4Medical.com / MedicalRF.com
(3)      Dr. M.A. Ansary / Photo Researchers, Inc.
(4)      Diane MacDonald / Photographer's Choice
(5)      Dr. M.A. Ansary / Photo Researchers, Inc.
(6)      Banana Stock
(7)      Larry Mulvehill / Photo Researchers, Inc.
(8)      Mark Harmel / Stone
(9)      Steve Gschmeissner / Photo Researchers, Inc.
(10)   AP Photo / Frederick News Post, Doug Koontz
(11)   Corbis
(12)   Fabio Cardoso / Flirt Collection
(13)   Kevin Arnold / Iconica

REFERENCES:

American Cancer Society.
Bloomberg web site.
National Cancer Institute.
The National Pancreas Foundation.

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 05, 2016

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.