Pancreatic Cancer: Overview

What is pancreatic cancer?

Cancer is made of changed cells that grow out of control. The changed (abnormal) cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer cells can also grow into (invade) nearby areas. And they can spread to other parts of the body. This is called metastasis.

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in your pancreas. The pancreas is a pear-shaped organ that lies behind the stomach and in front of your spine. It makes digestive juices and hormones, such as insulin, that help your body use food for energy.

Who is at risk for pancreatic cancer?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change.

The risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • Older age

  • Being a man

  • Being African American

  • Tobacco use

  • Obesity

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Chronic pancreatitis (long-term inflammation of the pancreas)

  • Cirrhosis of the liver

  • Family history of pancreatic cancer

  • Certain inherited genetic syndromes, such as Lynch syndrome and hereditary pancreatitis

Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for pancreatic cancer and what you can do about them.

Can pancreatic cancer be prevented?

There’s no sure way to prevent pancreatic cancer. But you can help lower your risk by making some lifestyle changes. These include:

  • Eat a healthy diet.

  • Be physically active.

  • Stay at a healthy weight.

  • Don’t smoke.

  • Don’t drinking alcohol or drink only in moderation.

Are there screening tests for pancreatic cancer?

There are no regular screening tests for pancreatic cancer in people at average risk. Screening tests are done to check for disease in people who don’t have symptoms.

But some people at increased risk might benefit from screening. If you have a strong family history of pancreatic cancer, you might want to talk with your healthcare provider about screening. Regular ultrasounds can be done to look for tumors in the pancreas. Or you can ask about genetic counseling and testing to help find out if you are at increased risk.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer often does not cause any symptoms until it has spread or the tumor is large.

Symptoms may include:

  • Yellowing of your eyes or skin (jaundice)

  • Itchy skin

  • Dark yellow or brown urine

  • Pale, greasy, bulky, bad-smelling stools that often float in the toilet

  • Pain in your stomach or back

  • Loss of appetite

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Gallbladder or liver swelling

  • Blood clots in your leg. These can cause pain, redness, or swelling in the leg.

  • Blood clots in your lung. These , which can cause shortness of breath or chest pain

  • Uneven, lumpy fatty tissue under your skin

Many of these may be caused by other health problems. But it’s important to see a healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have cancer.

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask you about your health history, symptoms, risk factors, and family history of disease. He or she will do a physical exam. Your provider will check your belly for tumors that are big enough to be felt and for an enlarged liver.

You may also have one or more of these tests:

  • Blood tests

  • Ultrasound

  • CT scan

  • Biopsy

A biopsy is the only way to confirm cancer. Small pieces of tissue are taken out and checked for cancer cells. 

After a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, you’ll likely need more tests. These help your healthcare providers learn more about the cancer. They can help determine the stage of the cancer. The stage is how much and how far the cancer has spread (metastasized) in your body. It is one of the most important things to know when deciding how to treat the cancer.

Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk with you about what the stage means for your treatment. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider to explain the stage of your cancer to you in a way you can understand.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Your treatment choices depend on the type of pancreatic cancer you have, test results, whether the cancer can be removed with surgery, and the stage of the cancer. The goal of treatment may be to cure you, control the cancer, or to help ease problems caused by the cancer. Talk with your healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment, and what the risks and side effects may be.

Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and radiation are local treatments. Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control cancer cells that may have traveled around your body. When taken by pill or injection, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. You may have just one treatment or a combination of treatments.

Pancreatic cancer may be treated with:

  • Surgery

  • Ablative treatments

  • Embolization

  • Radiation therapy

  • Chemotherapy

  • Targeted therapy

Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment options. Make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each option. Talk about your concerns with your healthcare provider before making a decision.

What are treatment side effects? 

Cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation can damage normal cells. This can cause side effects such as hair loss, mouth sores, and vomiting.

Talk with your healthcare provider about side effects you might have and ways to manage them. There may be things you can do and medicines you can take to help prevent or control side effects.

Coping with pancreatic cancer 

Many people feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing with cancer. Getting treatment for cancer can be hard on the mind and body. Keep talking with your healthcare team about any problems or concerns you may have. Work together to ease the effect of cancer and its symptoms on your daily life.

Here are tips:

  • Talk with your family or friends.

  • Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.

  • Speak with a counselor.

  • Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or rabbi.

  • Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or anxiety.

  • Keep socially active.

  • Join a cancer support group.

Cancer treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay healthier, try to:

  • Eat a healthy diet, with a focus on high-protein foods.

  • Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids.

  • Keep physically active.

  • Rest as much as needed.

  • Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage treatment side effects.

  • Take your medicines as directed by your team.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Your healthcare provider will talk with you about when to call. You may be told to call if you have any of the below:

  • New symptoms or symptoms that get worse

  • Signs of an infection, such as a fever

  • Side effects of treatment that affect your daily function or don’t get better with treatment

Ask your healthcare provider what signs to watch for and when to call. Know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

Key Points

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.