Common Questions About Pancreatic Cancer – Answered

July 27, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

David Greenberg, M.D. contributes to topics such as Hematology-Oncology.

Douglas Miller, M.D. contributes to topics such as Radiation Oncology.

Pancreatic cancer has made headlines in recent years with celebrities such as Alex Trebek and Steve Jobs. Our experts provided answers to frequently asked questions about pancreatic cancer.

What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

Your pancreas is a relatively small (about 6 inches long) gland that does big jobs. Tucked behind your stomach on the right side of your body, the portion called the head joins to the first part of your small intestine by the pancreatic duct. This gland creates digestive enzymes including insulin. If the cells in your pancreas experience abnormal and uncontrollable growth, it becomes pancreatic cancer.

Who Is at Risk for Pancreatic Cancer?

David Greenberg, M.D., an oncologist at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, states that while the exact causes of pancreatic cancer are unknown, people at highest risk include smokers and those with recurrent pancreatitis or a genetic susceptibility such as BRCA positivity. In some cases, it clusters in families.

What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?

While pancreatic cancer can be asymptotic, Dr. Greenberg says symptoms can include:

  • Abdominal pain that radiates to the back
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • Abnormal weight loss
  • A change in bowel habits
  • Late onset of diabetes

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?

When a doctor suspects pancreatic cancer:

  • The first step is to perform imaging tests like a CT scan or MRI scan to check for suspicious growth.
  • If indicated, an interventional radiologist will perform a biopsy taking a tiny tissue sample for testing.
  • If the biopsy shows pancreatic cancer, a treatment plan is then developed.

What Does a Treatment Plan Include?

When the cancer is localized on the pancreas, treatment will likely begin with a Whipple procedure, surgery commonly used across the country to remove the cancerous tissue and some surrounding tissue to be sure the cancer hasn’t begun to spread there. Patients are then usually offered a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy in order to decrease the risk of the cancer returning. Giving treatment after surgery to decrease the risk of recurrence is called adjuvant treatment, Dr. Greenberg says.

Depending on the patient, Douglas Miller, M.D., an oncology radiation specialist, states that they will typically undergo about five weeks, or 25 sessions, of radiation therapy. It tends to be well-tolerated with the main side effects being fatigue and nausea, which can be treated with medications.

If you or someone you care about are concerned about pancreatic cancer, contact your primary care doctor for an evaluation.

Next Steps & Resources

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.