Pancreatic Cancer: Symptoms, Stages, Causes, Medicines & Treatments
Commonly asked questions about pancreatic cancer:
- What is pancreatic cancer?
- Pancreatic cancer risk factors
- Can power morcellators cause pancreatic/abdominal cancer?
- Pancreatic cancer causes
- Pancreatic cancer symptoms
- Pancreatic cancer treatments
- How to prevent cancer
- What drugs are used to treat pancreatic cancer?
What Is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is a devastating form of cancer that initially develops in the tissue of the pancreas but can quickly spread to other areas of the body. The pancreas, located in the abdomen behind the stomach, is the organ responsible for the secretion of digestion aiding enzymes and the metabolization of sugars.
It is a deadly form of cancer that is rarely detected early and is often only detected once the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. Because it is rarely detected before metastasizing, it consistently ranks as one of the deadliest forms of cancer regarding the five-year survival rate.
According to the American Cancer Society, 53,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year with more than 41,000 suffering a related death. In further breakdown, these numbers indicate that while pancreatic cancer will only make up 3% of new cancer cases, it will constitute over 7% of all cancer related deaths.
Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors
Who Is At Risk Of Developing Pancreatic Cancer?
Risk factors are factors that may not directly cause pancreatic cancer but indicate an increased vulnerability of developing the disease. Some risk factors can be controlled by the actions of an individual while others cannot.
As more risk factors accumulate, the risk of pancreatic cancer exponentially increases although it does not mean an individual will definitively develop the condition.
Some of the most influential risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer includes:
Smoking is among the most detrimental acts an individual can do regarding their chances of developing pancreatic cancer. Reports indicate that smokers have a risk two times greater than non-smokers. The same reports also estimate that 20-30% of cases are directly tied to individuals having excessive smoking habits.
Tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars, pipes and smokeless products all increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Being overweight can directly increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Being overweight can carry a heightened risk of nearly 20%, especially for those who carry their extra weight around the waistline.
Exposure to toxic chemicals for prolonged periods of time can also work to increase a persons risk of developing pancreatic cancer. This is especially common for those in the dry cleaning and metal working industry.
Among the factors out of a persons control, their age, gender, and race are very influential in determining their risk of pancreatic cancer. Regarding gender, men are more susceptible to developing the disease than women, reportedly because tobacco use is more common in men. Additionally, African Americans see slightly elevated levels of the disease than other races.
Another uncontrollable risk factor is the age of the individual. As an individual increases in age, their risk of pancreatic cancer increases as almost all diagnosed cases existing in those over 45 with the average age being 71.
While still under debate, medical studies have indicated that it is likely that those with a family history of pancreatic cancer are far more likely to develop the disease than others. This risk is due to genetically inherited syndromes which may include:
- Hereditary Breast & Ovarian Cancer Syndrome
- Familial Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma Syndrome
- Lynch Syndrome
- Familial Pancreatitis
- Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome
- Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome
Various medical conditions can also cause the risk of pancreatic cancer to increase. One of these conditions is diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes. Additionally, chronic pancreatitis, stomach problems, and cirrhosis of the liver all carry heightened risks of pancreatic cancer in those afflicted with them.
How Can I Reduce My Risk Of Pancreatic Cancer?
Like all forms of cancer, there is no surefire way to prevent pancreatic cancer. However, there are efforts than can be taken to minimize the risk of the disease as much as possible.
The most effective ways to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer include:
- Halting Smoking
- Maintain Healthy Weight
- Limiting Alcohol Use
- Limiting Chemical Exposure
Can Power Morcellators Cause Pancreatic/Abdominal Cancer?
Power morcellators are tools used by doctors in hysterectomies, as well as other minimally invasive procedures to remove uterine fibroids. Surgeons make small incisions to “morcellate” or chop up fibroids and tissue in order to cut them into smaller pieces. Surgeons then vacuum the residue out of the area.
The concern, however, is the morcellator has a possibility of spreading bits of the uterine or fibroid tissue to other tissues and organs, spurring on new growths.
The new growths can cause pain, infection, bowel obstruction or in some cases malignant cancer cells can become present. When cancer metastasizes, it infects other organs, such as the pancreas, liver, ovaries and lungs. This form of cancer is called metastasized leiomysarcoma and is classified as a stage III or IV cancer and has a much higher fatality rate.
Pancreatic Cancer Causes
How Do I Get Pancreatic Cancer?
Similar to most other forms of cancer, medical research has yet to determine what the exact cause of pancreatic cancer may be. However, the developmental process of the cancer is known and understood in detail.
As previously detailed, there are various risk factors that can contribute to triggering the development of pancreatic cancer. Once triggered, the cancer undergoes a dangerous – sometimes life threatening – development process.
Pancreatic cancer begins when the pancreas cells experience a mutation in their DNA that causes the cells to experience uncontrollable growth. As the growth continues, cells will no longer die as would be typical for pancreas cells. This combination of cell issues allows for a mass to grow within the pancreas rather quickly.
This growth is most commonly found in the lining of the pancreatic ducts – adenocarcinoma or exocrine cancer. However, the growth has also been found in the hormone producing cells of the organ – islet cell cancer.
What Medications Cause Pancreatic Cancer?
Unfortunately, medical research conducted in the last decade has identified several common medications approved by the FDA that may lead to pancreatic cancer if used for a prolonged period of time.
Of these medications, several type 2 diabetes drugs have been discovered to have the strongest connections to pancreatic cancer. These include those in the glucagonlike peptide-1 receptor agonists (GLP1s) and dipeptidyl peptidase-4 inhibitors (DPP-4 inhibitor) drug classes.
Some of these specific type 2 diabetes medications associated with the development of pancreatic cancer include:
Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2009, Onglyza (saxagliptin) has been cited in various drug safety communications and medical studies as a drug that poses a direct risk to consumers. As a DPP-4 inhibitor drug, it is believed that an active ingredient in the drug has a profound affect on the function and health of pancreas cells in such a way that it may cause damage extensive enough to lay the foundation for cancer.
Byetta (exenatide) is a GLP-1 drug that is injected into a patient twice a day and has been prescribed to millions of patients in the decade it has been available. However, with consumer reports claiming that pancreatic cancer was developed while on the drug regiment becoming public, investigations are currently being pursued to determine the true nature of the risk posed by this drug.
However, while the associated isn’t completely know prescriptions are still being regularly filed for the drug, posing a threat to thousands of consumers who may be subjecting themselves to a heightened risk of pancreatic cancer.
Januvia (sitagliptin) has been available on the U.S. market since it gained FDA approval in 2006 as a DPP-4 inhibitor drug for type 2 diabetes. However, like fellow DPP-4 inhibitors the drug has been known to carry a strong correlative relationship with the development of type 2 diabetes.
Although studies continue to indicate that taking either of these drugs may lead to a dangerous increase in risk for developing pancreatic cancer, prescription rates for the drugs have steadily risen every year since their introduction.
Victoza (liraglutide) is an injectable GLP-1 mimetic drug (mimic of GLP-1 drug) that has been prescribed to consumers since it was approved by the FDA in 2010. Although tests have indicated that the drug is effective at controlling type 2 diabetes, it has been associated with a rising number of pancreatic cancer cases.
Like other type 2 diabetes drugs, the association between Victoza and pancreatic cancer is well documented but is still being prescribed to millions of Americans every year.
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
Part of what makes this cancer so deadly is that noticeable symptoms often don’t appear until the cancer has entered advanced stages of development. Once noticeable, the symptoms can vary to a large degree depending on the exact location of the cancer, status of spread, and tumor size.
Because pancreatic tumors are normally small in size, the tumors don’t trigger the symptoms until they have spread and grown to other nearby organs.
Some of the most common symptoms associated with the cancer are:
- Upper Abdominal Pain
- Loss Of Appetite
- Weight Loss
- Blood Clots
When suffering from islet cell cancer, an individual may report feeling week or dizzy, experiencing chills or muscle spasms, and frequent diarrhea. These symptoms come from the cancer affecting the production of insulin and other hormones.
Pancreatic Cancer Treatments
How Can Pancreatic Cancer Be Treated?
Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of development and where the cancer is located. Additionally, factors including the age, health, and preference of the individual suffering from the cancer may be taken into account.
While there is no definite cure, if detected early in development the cancer is highly treatable. When detected early a treatment can work to eliminate the isolated cancer.
Unfortunately, if the cancer has proceeded to an advanced stage there is little a doctor can do, at that time methods may be pursued but their effectiveness is limited.
Pancreatic Head Surgery
If pancreatic cancer is isolated in the head of the pancreas, a surgeon may decide to execute a Whipple procedure. This surgery would result in the removal of the pancreas head, a portion of the small intestine, the gallbladder, and a portion of the bile duct. In severe cases in which the cancer has spread, the infected portion of the stomach may also be surgically removed.
Once all infected areas have been removed the surgeon will reconnect the pancreas, stomach, and intestine to allow the body to digest food as standard. This surgery comes with a long recovery process with days in the hospital followed by several weeks of home-bound recovery.
Pancreatic Tail And Body Surgery
This surgery constitutes a surgeon removing the entire tail of the pancreas and – at times – a small portion of the body. Known as a distal pancreatectomy, if the cancer has spread the surgeon may also decide to remove the spleen as a precaution.
As is true for both head and tail surgery, experienced surgeons typically carry out surgeries that carry fewer complications than surgeons without as much experience. To ensure that you are exposed to as few risks as possible, discuss with your doctor how much experience they have in performing the surgery.
Radiation therapy is one of the most commonly used treatment methods, regardless of the type of cancer being treated. The technique utilizes high-energy beams to concentrate on an area in the body and destroy all the cancer cells present.
The therapy can be used in a variety of situations including pre-surgery, post-surgery, in combination with chemotherapy, or to completely replace surgery in conjunction with chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is the most well known cancer treatment method available today. The therapy is a combination of drugs that are injected into the body or administered orally.
The drug(s) seek out the cancer in the body and proceed to eliminate them with devastating effectiveness. Sometimes chemotherapy is used in conjunction with radiation if surgery is unavailable as an option.
However, the therapy is most commonly used when the cancer has metastasized beyond the pancreas or after surgery to eliminate any remnants of cancer.
Targeted therapy utilizes a combination of drugs to target abnormalities in the cancer cells. Erlotinib (Tarceva), the most commonly used drug for this method, blocks chemicals in the cancer cells that triggers growth and division.
Chemotherapy can be used with targeted therapy to treat advanced stages of pancreatic cancer.
How to Prevent Cancer
Cancer prevention can vary based on different research, and opinionated studies or news reports. However, these simple lifestyle changes can make a difference in the prevention of developing or forming cancer.
- Eat healthy
- Limit or stop your use of tobacco
- Have a balanced lifestyle
- Avoid risky behavior
- Visit your doctor
- Protect your skin from the sun
What Drugs are Used to Treat Pancreatic Cancer?
The following drugs and medications are in some way related to, or used in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute:
- Abraxane (Paclitaxel Albumin-stabilized Nanoparticle Formulation)
- Afinitor (Everolimus)
- Erlotinib Hydrochloride
- 5-FU (Fluorouracil Injection)
- Fluorouracil Injection
- Gemcitabine Hydrochloride
- Gemzar (Gemcitabine Hydrochloride)
- Irinotecan Hydrochloride Liposome
- Mitomycin C
- Mitozytrex (Mitomycin C)
- Mutamycin (Mitomycin C)
- Onivyde (Irinotecan Hydrochloride Liposome)
- Paclitaxel Albumin-stabilized
- Nanoparticle Formulation
- Sunitinib Malate
- Sutent (Sunitinib Malate)
- Tarceva (Erlotinib Hydrochloride)