Pancreatic cancer is a relatively rare cancer. According to the Malaysian Cancer Registry’s latest report for 2007-2011, only 1.77% of the reported 103,507 new cancer cases is pancreatic cancer.
This malignant cancer arises in the pancreas – an organ that has two functions (1) releases enzymes that aids digestion and (2) produces hormones that regulates blood sugar levels.
There are different types of pancreatic cancer. The most common type of pancreatic cancer, accounting to about 90% of cases, is pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). These cancerous tumours start within the exocrine cells of the pancreas that produces the digestive enzymes. Neuroendocrine tumours of pancreas are extremely rare occurring in 1:100,000 persons. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs) occurs in the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer vary depending on the type of disease and can be quite vague as the symptoms come and go. Common symptoms include,
- Abdominal pain that radiates to the back pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
- Difficulty swallowing
- Recently diagnosed diabetes
Unfortunately due to the unspecific nature of the symptoms, many present at late stages. The disease is also thought to spread early contributing to the less favourable outlook of the disease in general.
Abnormal cells in an area of body and may develop into cancer in future, also known as Carcinoma In Situ.
Cancer is relatively small and contained within the organ it started.
Cancer has not spread into surrounding tissues but cancer cells may have spread into lymph nodes close to the tumour.
Cancer may have spread to surrounding tissues and lymph nodes in the area.
Cancer has spread from where it started to another organ. This is also known as secondary or metastatic cancer.
Diagnosis & Treatment
Diagnosis of the cancer is done using medical imaging technologies such as computed tomography (CT scan), Positron Emission Tomography – Computed Tomography (PET/CT Scan) and in some cases magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be needed. An abdominal ultrasound may detect the presence of liver metastases.
The most sure way of diagnosing pancreatic cancer is by taking a sample of cells (biopsy) and looking at them under a microscope. Your doctor takes a biopsy by putting a needle into the area of suspected cancer.
Specialists don’t usually take biopsies if they think that the cancer could be removable with surgery (resectable). In that case, your diagnosis will be made by the doctor examining you and reviewing your scans and tests. A confirmed diagnosis can be made when the tumour is removed during surgery.
If you have a cancer that can’t be removed with surgery, your specialist might want to biopsy it. Then they can find out exactly what kind of cancer it is and whether you can have treatment to slow down its growth.
So if all your other test results seem to show a cancer, you might not need a biopsy before you have treatment.
Treatment options include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of these options.
Age, gender and ethnicity plays a role in the risk of developing cancer. Most pancreatic cancer occurs in patients above age 65 (World cancer Report, 2014); and in Malaysia, pancreatic cancer is one of the top ten most common cancers among men and Chinese men are at higher risk comparing to the other ethnicity in the country.
Although the actual cause of pancreatic cancer is not known, there are a few known risks that leads to developing this disease.
Common health risk factors such as diabetes, obesity, the habit of smoking cigarettes are among the top risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer apart from family history and genetic syndromes.