The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen behind the stomach which secretes fluid into the gastrointestinal system to help digest food as well as control sugar levels in the blood.
Pancreas cancer develops when normal pancreatic cells change into abnormal cells that grow without restriction. There are sometimes no symptoms present when pancreas cancer exists. If symptoms exist they can include pain, weight loss, diarrhoea or yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice). The urine can become very dark and the bowel motions very pale. It is important to remember that these symptoms can exist in people without cancer.
There are several tests that can be performed to determine whether a person has pancreatic cancer. These include a variety of blood tests, ultrasound, CT and/or MRI scans. Some tests require a procedure such as an Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), an Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS) or a Percutaneous Transhepatic Cholangiogram (PTC). A biopsy (sample of tissue) is sometimes needed however is not always performed prior to surgery.
Once pancreas cancer is diagnosed, it is important to clarify if the cancer has spread. This is called cancer staging and will help work out what treatment will be the most beneficial. This may involve scans or a small operation called a laparoscopy.
Treatments for pancreas cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of the above. Which treatment is appropriate depends on the extent to which the cancer involves structures around the pancreas such as blood vessels and whether the cancer has spread to other organs. Even if it is not possible to cure the cancer, there are always treatments that can help with symptoms.