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Pancreatic Cancer - Life Expectancy, Symptoms, Stages, Treatment, Diagnosis

Updated on January 6, 2014

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

This is cancer of the pancreatic gland which is situated behind your stomach and is part of your digestive system. It is responsible for producing the juice that helps aid in the digestion of food and the production of hormones like insulin, which is what is needed to metabolize sugar. The pancreas is approximately five inches long, shaped like a little pear, and is divided into three parts. Those three parts are the body, tail, and head. Because of where it is located you cannot feel it from the outside. It is a cancer that commonly affects people over the age of fifty. Because it is difficult to diagnosis in the early stages it is sometimes referred to as “the silent disease or killer.” More men than women have pancreatic cancer with it being the fifth common cancer in women and fourth common cancer in men.

Stages

This is a term that physicians use in regards to the cancer treatment to describe how far pancreatic cancer has spread. There are four main stages along with sub-stages

  • Stage I - this is one of the least severe stages where the cancer are found only on your pancreas and have not gone into your lymph nodes, surrounding ducts, and farther. This stage is the one that is the easiest to treat with the survival rates much higher in this stage. Because this type of cancer has such vague symptoms or no symptoms at all it is hard to catch it in this early stage.
  • Stage IA - at this stage it is less than two centimeters across
  • Stage IB - at this stage it is greater than two centimeters
  • Stage II - at this stage the cancer has gone farther than your pancreas and into organs that surround your pancreas like your bile duct. It still has not moved into your lymph glands at this stage. This is also a stage that is not too severe and is still easily treatable. Unfortunately it can be hard to catch it at this stage.
  • Stage III - at this stage the tumors or cells are located in your pancreas and in your lymph nodes that is closest to your pancreas or in the surrounding organs. At this stage treatment is more difficult. In addition, the survival rates of pancreatic cancer begin to rapidly decline when it reaches this stage.
  • Stage IV - this stage is severe because during this stage the cancer has spread to your organs that are the farthest from your pancreas and throughout your body.
  • Stage IV-A - at this stage the organs that are the closest to your pancreas has been affected even though they go past your lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV-B - at this stage it means that any organ may have been affected by the cancer cells and includes your heart, liver, brain, kidneys, or lungs.

Symptoms

What symptoms of pancreatic cancer a person has depends on where it occurs in your pancreas and they type of cancer. When a person has pancreatic cancer it will usually develop over a few months. Because your pancreas produces insulin the symptoms may be similar to the symptoms of diabetes. An early detection of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer is difficult because most of the time they do not appear until after pancreatic cancer has reached an advanced stage. If you should show any of these common symptoms you should go to your physician immediately to be checked for pancreatic cancer.

Some of the common symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Jaundice - this is one of the main symptoms of pancreatic cancer and could be a symptom of cancer affecting the head of your pancreas with approximately eighty percent of pancreatic cancer occurring in the head of your pancreas. This is where your skin and the whites of your eyes start to turn yellow. This happens when the cancer starts to spread and either partially or completely blocks your bile ducts, slowing down the movement of your bile.
  • Experiencing severe pain in the upper part of your abdomen or stomach and slowly ships to your back. This symptom occurs when the tumor is pushing against the nerves. This pain will increase when you lay down or three to four hours after you eat. When you have abdominal pain this is a sign that the cancer may have affected either the middle or tail of your pancreas
  • Loss of appetite which will usually indicate that there may be a problem with stomach so it is important to see your physician soon if you have this symptom.
  • When pancreatic cancer affects the head of your pancreas you will experience a tremendous loss of weight. If you are not intentionally trying to lose weight and also have pain in your abdomen this is usually one of the first symptoms that women along with men notice.
  • The color of your urine and stool changes. If the cancerous tumor has blocked your bile duct your stool will usually become pale in color with it looking like the color of clay. Your stools will also give out a strong strange smell. When you have a bowel movement along with passing the stool there is also excess fat being excreted. This is called steatorrhea. Your urine will become much darker in color.
  • As the pancreas loses its ability to produce insulin you may suddenly develop diabetes.
  • Your skin may also become itchy but this is a rare symptom. If you should have this symptom along with jaundice and stomach pain you should see your physician to make sure what is causing these symptoms.

Other common symptoms may include:

  • Loss of energy and fatigue
  • Indigestion and bloating of your stomach after meals
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Experiencing depression
  • Fever that is accompanied by shivering
  • Being constantly thirsty

Causes

At this time scientists are trying to figure out the exact cause of pancreatic cancer but they have found that there are certain reasons that can increase the chance of a person developing pancreatic cancer which can include:

  • Eating an unhealthy diet that contains a lot of fate, sugar, and processed or red meat
  • Having stomach ulcers, having a problem with a pancreas that is enlarged, or a history of diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Too much smoking
  • Although it is a rare cause it could also be genetic.

Diagnosis

These are some of the different tests that a physician can use if they suspect you have pancreatic cancer.

  • Doing imaging tests to create pictures of the internal organs
  • Using a scope to create ultrasound pictures of the pancreas
  • Injecting dye into your pancreatic ducts using a scope
  • Removing a sample of the tissue from your pancreas for testing.

Once the physician has confirmed you have pancreatic cancer they will start to work on determining the stage of the cancer by:

  • Using a scope to see inside your body
  • Doing imaging tests like and MRI and CT
  • Blood tests to see if you have specific proteins that are called tumor markers that are shed by the pancreatic cancer cells.

Treatment

What treatment is used depends on where the cancer is located and the stage of the cancer and your age. The goal of treatment is to eliminate the cancer when it is possible. If is not able to eliminate the cancer entirely then the focus is on preventing it from causing any more harm or growing. If the pancreatic cancer is so advanced when treatments will not benefit your physician will concentrate on making you as comfortable as possible and help to relieve the symptoms. Your physician may decide to do surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of all three. One thing to note is that surgery to remove the tumor on your pancreas is only possible if your pancreatic cancer has not spread.

Life Expectancy

Because pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnosis in the early stages it is usually found in later stages where treatment will not help you can expect to only live five to ten months after being diagnosed but there has been approximately twenty percent who have lived more than twelve months. Your lifestyle, general health, and if you have the ability to respond to treatment can also help to determine the life expectancy. There are reports that state there is approximately twelve to twenty percent of a person living five years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

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    • profile image

      Moises 2 years ago

      In most cases, especially with a non-aggressive form of pratsote cancer, the best treatment is NO TREATMENT. Most men with pratsote cancer die of another disease (e.g. heart disease) before the cancer can kill them. However, if the cancer is determined to be an aggressive form, some type of therapeutic intervention is warranted.Best wishes for you father's health.

    • profile image

      Lomesh 2 years ago

      was positive. They came up with no caencr present. So my doctor was very adamant that he was not wrong and so I went back to the hospital two months later and they did their own biopsy which came back negative. In fact they were surprised that my Urologist even did a biopsy on a PSA that was only 2.0 and that had increased one point in a year based on my family doctor's information. Here are some original mistakes to watch out for all of you who may experieince this: my family doctor who said my PSA went up one point in a year had both readings done by different labs, not good, and then when my Urologist decided to do a biopsy based on that information without doing his own PSA test to confirm. Clearly I should have been smarter and seen that error. But then there is so much money to be made from biopsies and radical surgery Urologists will guide you straight down that road. This was all a year and a half ago and my PSA continues to decline now to almost 1.0 which I check every thre months.

    • wabash annie profile image

      wabash annie 3 years ago from Colorado Front Range

      What an informative hub! Cancer is prevalent in my family but not yet this one. Thanks for writing about this topic.