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What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells develop in part of the pancreas. This may affect how the pancreas works, including the functioning of the exocrine or endocrine glands. Pancreatic cancer can occur in any part of the pancreas, but about 70% of pancreatic cancers are located in the head of the pancreas. 

Pancreatic cancer is the eight most common cancer in both men and women in Australia, excluding non-melanoma skin cancers.

Pancreatic cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death over all.

In 2016, 3378 new cases of pancreatic cancer were diagnosed in Australia. The risk of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer by age 85 is 1 in 55 for Australian men and 1 in 71 for Australian women.

In 2018, there were 3077 deaths resulting from pancreatic cancer in Australia. 

The five year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 10.7%.



Pancreatic cancer symptoms

Early-stage pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms. Symptoms often only appear once the cancer is large enough to affect nearby organs, or has spread.

Symptoms can include: 

  • pain in the abdomen

  • loss of appetite

  • nausea and vomiting

  • weight loss

  • change in bowel habit with diarrhoea, constipation or the feeling of incomplete emptying

  • jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes, and dark urine).

Less common signs include:

  • severe back pain
  • onset of diabetes (10-20% of people with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes).


Causes of pancreatic cancer

Some factors that can increase your risk of pancreatic cancer include:

  • smoking

  • age - most cases occur in adults over the age of 60

  • diabetes, particularly newly diagnosed diabetes

  • a family history of pancreatic, ovarian or colon cancer

  • chronic pancreatitis

  • excessive alcohol consumption

  • obesity



Diagnosis of pancreatic cancer

Tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer include:

Blood tests

Blood tests are used to check your general health and how your kidneys and liver are functioning.

Ultrasound

An ultrasound uses soundwaves to show the pancreas and surrounding area to see if a tumour is present.

CT scan

A CT (computerised tomography) scan uses x-rays to take multiple pictures of the inside of the body.

MRI scan

A MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan using magnetic waves to create a detailed image of the pancreas and surrounding organs.

PET scan

A PET (positron emission tomography) scan highlights any tumours present by injecting a small amount of radioactive substance.

Tissue sampling tests

Tissue sampling tests including fine-needle aspiration (needle biopsy), endoscopy and laparoscopy.

The tests you have will depend on the symptoms, type and stage of the cancer.



Treatment for pancreatic cancer

Staging

Imaging and tissue sampling tests (above) are used to determine the stage of the cancer.

The staging system used for pancreatic cancer is the TNM system, which describes the stage of the cancer from stage I to stage IV.

Types of treatment

Treatment for pancreatic cancer may include surgery, endoscopic treatment, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or a combination of these treatments.

For early disease, surgery is the most common treatment - usually the Whipple operation, which is the removal of part of the pancreas, the first part of the small bowel (duodenum), part of the stomach and the gall bladder, and part of the bile duct.

For advanced pancreatic cancer, surgery may not be possible. Treatment is often to relieve symptoms such as pain and digestive problems.

Palliative care

In some cases of pancreatic cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer without aiming to cure it.

As well as slowing the spread of pancreatic cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.

Treatment Team

Depending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of different health professionals, such as:
  • GP (General Practitioner)- looks after your general health and works with your specialiststo coordinate treatment.
  • Gastroenterologist- specialises in diseases of the digestive system.
  • Endocrinologist- specialises in diagnosing and treating disorders of the endocrine (hormonal) system.
  • Pancreatic surgeon- specialises in surgery to the liver and pancreas.
  • Radiation oncologist- prescribes and coordinates radiation therapy treatment.
  • Medical oncologist- prescribes and coordinates the course of chemotherapy.
  • Cancer nurses- assist with treatment and provide information and support throughout your treatment.
  • Other allied health professionals- such as social workers, pharmacists and counsellors.


Screening for pancreatic cancer

There is currently no screening for pancreatic cancer available in Australia.



Preventing pancreatic cancer

People with certain risk factors are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Not smoking or quitting smoking reduces your risk. Smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

Other known risk factors are listed above. 



Prognosis for pancreatic cancer

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You will need to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is impossible for any doctor to predict the exact course of your disease. Test results, the type, stage and location of the cancer; and other factors such as your age, fitness and medical history are all important when working out your prognosis.

Most pancreatic cancers are not found until they are advanced as symptoms can be vague or go unnoticed. If the cancer is diagnosed early and can be surgically removed, the progosis can be better. 

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