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Pancreatic Cancer
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Second Opinion 5

Pancreatic Cancer Panelists

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Resource Description: 
The ACS helps people stay well and get well, find cures, and fight back against cancer.
The AFFPC is a partnership of grass-roots foundations and families across the country unified in the quest to defeat pancreatic cancer.
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is a nationwide network of people dedicated to working together to advance research, support patients and create hope for those affected by pancreatic cancer.
Episode number: 
1210

Topics:

A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is devastating for the patient and his/her family. Often the cancer is caught when it is at an advanced stage, and survival rates are lower than many cancers. Peter Suess is more than 5 years out from his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and his story of his ongoing treatment and survival is one of hope and inspiration.

(The following information is from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network:)

Pancreatic cancer begins when abnormal cells within the pancreas grow out of control and form a tumor. There are two types of cells in the pancreas, the exocrine cells and endocrine cells. These cells also have different functions.

More than 95% of pancreatic cancers are classified as exocrine tumors. These tumors start in the exocrine cells that make pancreatic enzymes that help in digestion. Within this category, the vast majority of tumors are adenocarcinomas. The following table describes the different types of pancreatic exocrine tumors.

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (pancreatic NETs or PNETs) account for less than 5% of all pancreatic tumors.  They may be benign or malignant and they tend to grow slower than exocrine tumors.  They develop from the abnormal growth of endocrine (hormone-producing) cells in the pancreas called islet cells.  This is why these tumors are sometimes referred to as “islet cell tumors.”

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are either functional (produce hormones) or nonfunctional (produce no hormones). The majority of PNETs are nonfunctional tumors. 

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer:

Pancreatic cancer is sometimes called a “silent” disease because symptoms are rarely present in its early stages. Many patients have advanced disease by the time it becomes noticeable to the patient and doctors. If symptoms are present, they are often vague. Patients may experience different symptoms depending on the location, type and stage of the cancer.

Symptoms that commonly lead to diagnosis include: jaundice, abdominal and/or back pain, new-onset diabetes, unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite. A person with advanced pancreatic cancer may also experience ascites (fluid in the abdomen) and blood clots. Symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, digestive difficulties and depression may occur at any time.

Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer:

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer can be difficultfor several reasons.  First, the pancreas is located deep in the abdomen between the stomach and the back, so it is difficult for a doctor to see or feel the tumor during a physical exam.  Additionally, the symptoms of pancreatic cancer are not always obvious and usually develop gradually.  If a person has symptoms that suggest pancreatic cancer, a variety of tests may be performed to make an accurate diagnosis.  However, there is no standard diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer, which further complicates the diagnosing process.

Generally, the doctor will begin by asking about medical and family history and will perform a physical exam.  The doctor will examine the patient’s body, including skin and eyes, and press on the abdomen to check for changes in the area near the pancreas, liver and gallbladder.  Blood, urine and stool tests may be ordered. A pancreatic tumor can only be seen on an imaging study such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Treating Pancreatic Cancer:

Depending on the type and stage of the cancer, the patient may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and/or palliative therapies.  Some patients may receive more than one or a combination of these treatments.  Pancreatic cancer clinical trials may also be an appropriate treatment option.  The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network recommends that all patients consider clinical trials when exploring treatment options.

Patients should seek care from hospitals and/or doctors that provide the best quality care. In many cases, this care can be obtained through hospitals or doctors that care for large numbers of people with pancreatic cancer. With more experience, hospitals or doctors may have greater knowledge of the disease and treatment options.

Medline Plus

Medline Description: 

Conduct an off-site search for Pancreatic Cancer from MedlinePlus.  These up-to-date search results are based on search terms specific to Second Opinion Key Points.

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