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By Ackerman Cancer Center

05/21/2018

Recognizing the Signs & Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is a relatively rare – but aggressive – cancer that often remains undetected until it reaches an advanced stage. Late diagnosis means pancreatic cancer is responsible for a disproportionate number of cancer deaths.

Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, succumbed to the disease in 2011 and in May 2018, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was diagnosed. Dr. Ackerman was brought onto Jacksonville's Channel 4 News to discuss Senator Reid's diagnosis. You can watch his interview here.

Although there are no clear-cut ways of identifying pancreatic cancer, recognizing possible symptoms can aid in diagnosis of the disease.

What is a pancreas and what does it do?
Tucked away in the back of the abdomen between the stomach and the spine, near the start of the small intestine, the pancreas is a hard-working organ that can’t be seen or felt. This long, flat gland (really two glands that form a single organ) can be separated into two main functions – the exocrine function and the endocrine function.

The exocrine cells secrete digestive enzymes into the duodenum (the first portion of the small intestine) to aid in digestion. The endocrine cells of the pancreas release hormones, including insulin, that help regulate metabolism and blood sugar.

The vast majority of pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas that occur in the exocrine portion of the pancreas.

Learning the symptoms of pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer is not always easy to diagnose since the symptoms can also be caused by other medical conditions, however, the following should warrant a trip to the doctor:

  • Newly diagnosed diabetes – those with no family history or risk factors for diabetes who suddenly develop the condition, as well as those previously diagnosed with diabetes who suddenly find it difficult to control, should have their pancreatic function evaluated
  • Abdominal pain – the location of the pancreas, near a mass of blood vessels and nerves known as the celiac plexus, means patients with pancreatic cancer often feel pain that radiates from just under the sternum to the back
  • Blood clots with unknown cause – blood clot formation that occurs without an identifiable cause such as surgery, trauma or hereditary predisposition to clot formation, should be screened for cancer
  • Diarrhea or fatty stools – when the pancreas isn’t functioning properly, fat may be poorly digested, leading to floating or foul-smelling stools
  • Jaundice –yellowing of the skin or the white portion of the eye can indicate a clogged or poorly functioning bile duct in the liver which sits near the pancreas
  • Poor appetite or spontaneous weight loss – can be caused by a pancreatic tumor that is blocking the small intestine

Treatment of pancreatic cancer
Treatment options for pancreatic cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and ablation or embolization. Depending on the type, stage and exact location of the cancer, one or more of these options may be appropriate.

In addition to the treatment type, treatment delivery is also a consideration, particularly since the pancreas sits near vital structures such as the liver, small intestine, stomach and spinal cord.

Some patients may be candidates for proton therapy to treat their pancreatic cancer. Proton therapy is an advanced radiation delivery system that precisely targets tumors while sparing surrounding healthy tissues and organs. Proton therapy enables radiation to be delivered directly to the tumor site in the pancreas while dramatically reducing radiation exposure to critical structures nearby.

By limiting radiation exposure to normal tissue, proton therapy minimizes side effects and is associated with an improved quality of life during and after pancreatic cancer treatment.

Recent studies have shown proton therapy is often an appropriate and effective therapy following surgical resection of pancreatic cancer as well as in cases of inoperable pancreatic tumors.

For more information on pancreatic cancer treatment options or proton therapy, please contact us at 904-880-5522.

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