Pancreatic cancer begins in the pancreas, which is a large gland within the digestive system. This medical condition is caused by the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells within the pancreas itself.
We already know from our in-depth cancer guide that there are over 200 different types of the disease, with each type affecting people in different ways. Today's article focuses solely on pancreatic cancer, including the symptoms to watch out for, the diagnosis and the treatment on offer.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
According to Cancer Research UK, pancreatic cancer is the 11th most common form of the overall disease in the UK. Around 9600 people are diagnosed with the condition every year, the majority of which are over the age of 75.
Almost half of all new cases are diagnosed in people aged 75 and over. Pancreatic cancer is uncommon in people under 40 years old. One in 71 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during their lifetime."
Worryingly, the number of people diagnosed has been continually rising for the past 10 years and is most common in people living in poorer areas of the country.
The condition itself occurs within the pancreas. This is a large gland within your digestive system, located between the stomach and spine, and is responsible for the production of hormones that control blood sugar levels and enzymes that break down food. The cancer is caused by the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells within the pancreas.
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer can vary depending on whereabouts the cancer is within the pancreas, there are three different parts to the pancreas: the head, tail and body. The most common type of pancreatic cancer starts in the cells that produce digestive juices and is called an exocrine tumour.
The NHS list the following as the first noticeable symptoms of pancreatic cancer:
- Jaundice - The yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Your urine may also turn dark yellow or orange.
- Back or Stomach Pain - This may be worse when your lie down or after eating.
- Unexpected Weight Loss - This is most common when the cancer is within the head of the pancreas.
There are also several other, non-specific, symptoms which may be a cause for concern. These include:
- Signs of Diabetes.
- Bowel Changes.
- Blood Clots.
- Fever and Shivering.
If you experience any of these symptoms, or notice any other changes to your body, then you should visit your GP as soon as possible.
When you visit your GP you will undergo a physical examination, following a conversation about your general health and the symptoms that you've been experiencing. It may be that your doctor examines your abdomen in-search of a lump and to see whether your liver is enlarged.
Checks for jaundice will be completed and you may be required to give blood and urine samples. If pancreatic cancer is suspected, your doctor will refer you to a specialist at hospital for further tests. This may include an:
- CT Scan.
- MRI Scan.
You may also have a positron emission tomography (PET) scan which involves being given an injection of radioactive medication to help show cancers on an image. Depending on your results further tests may be needed to confirm diagnosis.
This includes an:
- Endoluminal ultrasonography endoscopy - Allows close-up ultrasound pictures of your pancreas.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatograph - The injection of a special dye into your bile and pancreatic ducts. On an X-Ray the dye will highlight any tumours.
- Laparoscopy - A Surgical procedure that allows the surgeon to see inside your body using a microscope.
During any of these procedures a biopsy may also be carried out.
It is not currently known what causes pancreatic cancer, although, as with most forms of cancer, there are several lifestyle, risk and medical factors which can increase your risk. These include the following:
- Smoking - One in three cases are associated with the use of cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco.
- Alcohol - Seven in 10 cases are associated with long-term heavy drinking.
- Medical History - Conditions such as diabetes, chronic pancreatitis and stomach ulcers increase the risk.
- Family History - In around one in every 10 cases, the condition has been inherited from a person's parents.
- Obesity - One in 10 cases can be linked to being overweight or obese.
- Diet - Some research has suggested a possible link between red or processed meat and the condition.
As previously mentioned, age will also play a part. Pancreatic cancer is very uncommon in people under the age of 40 and is most common in those who are between the ages of 50 and 80-years-old.
Due to the symptoms being difficult to detect, pancreatic cancer is often detected at a fairly advanced stage and is therefore difficult to treat. The treatment available will depend on the type and location of the cancer, and how advanced the condition is.
The first aim of your treatment is to completely remove the tumour and any other cells which may be cancerous. If this isn't possible, treatment will focus on preventing the tumour growing and causing further harm to your body.
As is common with most forms of cancer, the three main types of treatment is surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. Commonly, surgery is the only way for the condition to be completely cured. However this is also only suitable for around 15-20% of people, who have a good general level of health, due to the long and complex process used during surgery.
Surgery also isn't an option if the tumour has wrapped itself around important blood vessels or if the cancer has spread to other areas of your body.
Recovering from such a procedure can be long and painful. As your digestive system has been effected, your bowel will stop working temporarily and you will therefore be unable to eat or drink straight away. You may be referred to a dietitian, who can advise you about what foods you should eat following your operation.
It is likely that after surgery you'll be given a six month course of chemotherapy, to increase your chance of being cured. Chemotherapy is also given if surgery isn't an option, to help shrink the cancer, slow its growth and to relieve any symptoms.
Living with Pancreatic Cancer
As previously touched upon, pancreatic cancer has a direct affect on your how you eat and drink. The pancreas is responsible for the production of insulin and enzymes which help your body to digest food.
If you have surgery to remove part of or all of your pancreas it may be that you're required to take insulin or tablets in order to regulate your blood sugar. You may also need to take enzyme supplements when you eat to help your body to digest your food correctly, especially if you have eaten fats and protein.
It might be difficult to put on weight as you are unable to absorb the nutrients from your food. It has been suggested that having lots of small meals throughout the day may be easier than having your traditional three meals.
It's a good idea to eat nutritious snacks whenever you feel like eating and, if you're able to manage it, choose full fat versions of yoghurts and puddings in order to gain the most calories. We advise speaking with your dietitian on a regular basis in order to find the best meal plans for you and your body.
As we have mentioned, pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose at an early stage. This means that the cancer is at an advanced level by the time treatment begins, and is therefore even harder to cure.
This means that survival outlooks are quite poor. Cancer Research give the following statistics:
- Around 20 in every 100 (around 20%) survive their cancer for one year or more after they are diagnosed.
- Almost five out of every 100 (almost 5%) survive their cancer for five years or more.
- Only one out of every 100 (1%) will survive their cancer for 10 years or more after diagnosis.
The best chance of survival is being able to go through surgery, which only around eight out of every 100 people can do.
Pancreatic cancer qualifies you for VAT Exemption when you order a personal alarm system from Lifeline24. HMRC state that a product which has been “designed or adapted for a disability” qualifies for VAT exemption.
For a person to qualify they must meet certain criteria set by HMRC. This criteria says that the customer must have a long-term illness, a terminal illness or a disability in order to qualify.
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