Expert pancreatic cancer care based on your needs.
What you need to know about pancreatic cancer
The pancreas is near the liver and the top part of the small intestine (duodenum). The pancreas makes enzymes used in digestion and several hormones, such as insulin.
Pancreatic cancer can grow in various parts of the pancreas. The majority of these cancers don’t cause symptoms in early stages, making them hard to detect. The pancreas is also hidden between other organs, adding to the difficulty of detecting and treating pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is rare and serious. Only about 1 percent of the general U.S. population will develop pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3 percent of all cancers in the U.S. and about 7 percent of all cancer deaths. The survival rate after five years is low, just over 8 percent.
Types of cancer in the pancreas
There are two main types of cancer that can start in the pancreas:
- Adenocarcinomas. These start in the exocrine pancreas cells that make up the pancreatic ducts or, less often, the cells that secrete digestive enzymes. About 95 out of 100 pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas. When people use the term pancreatic cancer, they usually mean this type.
- Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs). These tumors are also called islet cell tumors. They start in endocrine cells in the pancreas. There are many types of PNETs. They're named based on the type of hormone they make. They can be non-cancer (benign) or cancer (malignant). Fewer than 10 out of 100 pancreatic cancers are PNETs.
Other types of cancer that can start in the pancreas are much less common. They include rare exocrine cancers like acinar cell carcinomas, adenosquamous carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, signet ring cell carcinomas, and giant cell tumors.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer often does not cause any symptoms at first. Even when it does cause symptoms, they can often be similar to those caused by other conditions. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
- Yellowing of your eyes or skin (jaundice)
- Itchy skin
- Dark yellow or brown urine
- Pale, greasy, foul-smelling stools that may float in the toilet
- Pain in your stomach or back
- Indigestion or discomfort after eating fatty foods
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Extreme tiredness
- Blood clots in your leg. This can cause pain, redness, or swelling in the leg.
- Blood clots in your lung. This can cause shortness of breath or chest pain.
- Uneven, lumpy fatty tissue under your skin.
Many of these symptoms can be caused by other health problems. So it’s important to see your healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer experts
Legacy Cancer Institute, located in Portland, OR, ranks among the nation’s best cancer programs. We have a team of cancer specialists who work together to diagnose and develop a personalized treatment plan for you. Find the right provider and treatment close to home.
Legacy Cancer Institute is accredited as an integrated network cancer program by the American College of surgeons Commission on Cancer (CoC). Learn more about our quality cancer care.
Contact our nurse navigators at 503-674-1862 to learn more about pancreatic cancer.
Next steps after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis
Being told you have pancreatic cancer can be scary, and you may have many questions. It’s normal to feel afraid. Learning about your cancer and about the treatment options available to you can make you feel less afraid. You have people on your healthcare team to help.
At this point, you’ve likely had a physical exam and reviewed your health history with your provider. You may have also had a biopsy to confirm your diagnosis. Following a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, you may have more tests to help your doctor understand your cancer stage.
Cancer staging involves identifying where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread and if it is affecting other parts of your body. Knowing the stage allows your doctor to develop your personalized treatment plan.
Some tests your doctor may now recommend include:
- CT scan, MRI or positron emission tomography (PET): Imaging technology to look inside the body.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography: Use X-ray and an endoscope (small, lighted tube) to look for cancerous blockages in the ducts between the liver, gallbladder and small intestine. If there is blockage, doctors can sometimes place a tube to open the blockage and may take a sample for a biopsy.
- Endoscopic ultrasound: A thin, wand-like instrument inserted into the mouth and through the stomach. It uses sound waves to explore internal organs.
- Other tests: You may also have blood tests, laparoscopy (minimally invasive surgery), or percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC) to look for evidence of cancer in the bile ducts or pancreas.
Customized treatment plans
Because each person and every cancer is different, your doctor uses your tests and exams to come up with an individual treatment plan. How long this takes depends on how complex your case is and your treatment goals. During this time, you build a relationship with your cancer doctors. You become a team for your care.
Open, honest communication can only benefit your relationship with your doctors. These tips can also help you get the most from this partnership:
- Prepare in advance: Write down your questions ahead of your visits. A few examples of smart questions:
- Why are we doing these tests?
- Why do you think this treatment is right?
- What side effects might this treatment cause?
- Find trustworthy resources: If you’re looking to learn more, rely on this website or sources your team recommends, so you can make decisions based on good information.
- Take a partner: Bringing a friend or family member to appointments can make you feel more confident and help you remember important details.
Chance of recovery from pancreatic cancer
Your prognosis, or chance of recovery, depends on whether:
- The tumor can be removed by surgery
- The cancer has spread
- The cancer has just been found or has come back from a prior diagnosis
- The patient is in good general health
Though survival rates are low, new treatments are rapidly evolving, giving hope to more patients. In particular, advances in surgery allow doctors to remove all or part of the pancreas. Chemotherapy, immunotherapy or radiation may also be used, sometimes in combination with other treatments.
Talk to your doctor to see if a clinical trial may be right for you.
You are not alone. Legacy offers support throughout your cancer journey, as well as care for your emotional, social and spiritual needs.
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