Cancer is a disease which starts in the cells. Our bodies are made up of millions of cells, grouped together to form tissues or organs such as muscles and bones, the lungs, or the liver. Genes inside each cell order it to grow, work, reproduce and die.
Normally, our cells obey these orders and we remain healthy but sometimes cell’s instructions get mixed up and behaves abnormally. After a while, groups of abnormal cells can form lumps or tumours, or can spread to through the bloodstream and lymphatic system to other parts of the body.
Tumours can be either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Benign tumour cells stay in one place in the body and are not usually life-threatening.
Malignant tumour cells are able to invade the tissues around them and spread to other parts of the body. Cancerous cells which are spread to other parts of the body are called metastases. The first sign that a malignant tumour has spread is often swelling of nearby lymph nodes, but cancer can metastasize to almost any part of the body. It is important to find malignant tumours early and treat them.
Cancers are named after the part of the body where they start. For example, cancer which starts in the colon but spreads to the liver is called colon cancer with liver metastases. (The Canadian Cancer Society)
Education is the key to understanding what this disease means for those affected by it. It is also the key to understanding what questions to ask, to ensure patients receive the best treatment available. To do this, patients and caregivers must be knowledgeable and educated on the organ and on the disease.
What Function Does the Pancreas Have?
The pancreas is an important organ of the digestive system. It is located deep in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach and in front of the spine. This location has earned the pancreas the name "hidden organ." The pancreas is about six to eight inches long in an adult and contains thin tubes that come together like the veins of a leaf. These tubes join to form a single opening into the intestine that is located just beyond the stomach.
The pancreas is a part of our digestive system which assists in the digestion of food. It produces proteins (enzymes) to help digest food and it produces insulin, which regulates sugar levels in our blood. Food enters our esophagus, flows into our stomach, into the top of the small intestine called the duodenum, then into the large intestine, then the rectum and finally out the anal canal.
When food enters the duodenum, bile and pancreatic fluids also enter here, through a common bile duct. The bile from the liver is in charge of digesting the fats, and the pancreatic fluids are in charge of producing insulin and digesting our food (as already stated). So, although the pancreas is a small organ is has a huge impact on our digestive system. The following, is a diagram from John Hopkins which has been an excellent resource for us. It illustrates the position of the pancreas (represented in yellow), and of the organs surrounding the pancreas.
Below is a chart which outlines the various parts and functions of the pancreas.
The head is the large, rounded end that is located on the right side of the abdomen and near the beginning of the small intestine, which is called the duodenum. In the head there are the majority of the cells that produce insulin.
The body is the middle section, which is tucked behind the stomach.
The tail is the thin end of the pancreas that is located on the left side of the abdomen next to the spleen.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer starts in the cells of the pancreas and will eventually affect the pancreas's ability to assist in the digestion and the breakdown of food. More often then not, other organs linked to the pancreas will become damaged as well, such as the stomach, duodenum, liver, or gallbladder, leading to such symptoms as jaundice and digestion difficulties. For the majority of pancreatic cancer patients, it is only at this time (when other organs are involved), that the diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer is made. The very location of the pancreas often makes it difficult for early diagnosis, meaning before the cancer has metastasized.
Most often, pancreatic cancer starts in the ducts that carry the enzymes to the duodenum, but pancreatic cancer may also start in the cells that produce insulin (islet cells). Sometimes a tumour will start at the head of the pancreas. Tumours in this location can put pressure on the common bile duct, creating a blockage which then causes jaundice, which may be the first sign of a problem. Tumours in the body or the tail of the pancreas often do not trigger this early warning sign. Only about 30% of pancreatic cancer patients are fortunate enough to have the early warning signs and symptoms, making them eligible for surgery. Surgery is the only chance at a cure.
It is important to understand what type of pancreatic cancer you have and the potential treatment options available to you. The majority of pancreatic tumors are malignant (cancerous) and rarely present symptoms until the cancer is advanced. These cancerous tumors are adenocarcinomas. Rarely benign tumors are diagnosed, and although they are usually not an immediate health risk they can be referred to as premalignant and require surgical removal. Finally pancreatic cancer can also develop in the islet cells, as stated above. These tumors are named neuroendocrine and can result in the production of hormones, sometimes causing abnormal hormone levels.
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
As mentioned early, symptoms are often rare in the early stages of pancreatic cancer, but symptoms may become present if the tumour is positioned at the head of pancreas, if the tumour size increases or if the cancer metastasizes. Symptoms can also present as Hepatitis, which might be suspected if jaundice develops.
Other possible symptoms are;
~ abdominal pain which can get worse after meal time
~ weight loss
~ jaundice, which means the skin and whites of the eyes look yellow (occurs when the bile duct becomes obstructed)
~ mid-back pain as you change position
~ nausea and diarrhea
~ general weakness
~ itchy skin
~ light-colored bowel movements
~ slow digestion of food
~ liver and gallbladder may be swollen
~ blood clots in the legs
~ In the rare cases of pancreatic cancer (cystadenocarcinoma) that affect the hormone-secreting portion of the pancreas, the pancreas will produce too much insulin or other hormones. Symptoms may include weakness or dizziness, chills, muscle spasms, or diarrhea.
Staging of Pancreatic Cancer
Staging of cancer is a standardized way to classify a tumour based on its size, whether it has spread, and where it has spread. It measures the extent of the disease. Knowing the stage of your cancer will help your doctor determine which treatment options are right for you. Patients should know their diagnosis and staging of their cancer. It is a complicated process and cancer presents differently in every person.
The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is not complete unless staging is done. Subsequent decisions about treatment will be based upon the stage assigned.
The results of various diagnostic tests will indicate how far the cancer has progressed and determine the stage. Generally speaking, different stages carry different prognoses (see table below). The charts reproduced below are commonly used to stage pancreatic tumors. This staging process is based on the modifications of the American joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC 2002).
Table: 5 year survival of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer by each stage at the time of diagnosis
Stage at diagnosis 5-year Survival
All stages 4%
Metastasis Evaluation (M)
Pancreatic cancer may spread locally to the lymph nodes and major blood vessels near the pancreas or to distant lymph nodes or organs such as the liver or lungs. In staging, this spread is documented as follows:
Stage 0: refers to cancer that has not invaded outside the ducts in which it originated. This tumour can be removed by surgery.
Stage IA: The tumour in the pancreas is 2cm or smaller and has not spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body. This tumour can be removed by surgery.
Stage IB: The tumour in the pancreas is larger than 2 cm and has not spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body. This tumour can be removed by surgery.
Stage IIA: The tumour extends beyond the pancreas but has not spread to nearby lymph nodes, major blood vessels, or other parts of the body. This tumour can sometimes be removed by surgery.
Stage IIB: The tumour is any size and is either limited to or extends beyond the pancreas with spread to the lymph nodes but not to the major blood vessels or other part of the body. This tumour can sometimes be removed by surgery.
Stage III: The tumour has spread to major blood vessels and possibly to the lymph nodes, but not to other parts of the body. This tumour can sometimes be removed by surgery.
Stage IV: The cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
A simpler, more descriptive staging system for pancreatic cancer is often used by doctors. This system divides the cancers into groups based on whether or not the tumour can be removed surgically.
Resectable cancer: this is the type of pancreatic cancer that can be surgically removed. These tumours may lie within the pancreas or extend beyond it, but there is no involvement of the critical arteries or veins in the are
Locally advanced cancer is confined to the area around the pancreas but cannot be surgically removed because the tumour may be intertwined with major blood vessels and may have invaded surrounding organs, but has not spread to other areas of the body.
Unresectable cancer: a) Metastatic cancer is when the tumour has spread beyond the area of the pancreas and involves other organs, such as the liver or lungs, or other areas of the abdomen. Unfortunately, almost half of all patients are diagnosed at this stage and b) Advanced local cancer: it is a tumour that has not metastasized yet but it has involved vital structures around the pancreas that cannot be safely removed by surgery.
Side Effects from Pancreatic Cancer
There are some long-term consequences of the Whipple operation such as malabsorption, weight loss and need to change diet.
Malabsorption: this is the poor digestion and absorption of food, resulting in loose stools that are greasy, pale and tend to float in the water. The pancreas produces enzymes required for digestion of food. Removal of part of the pancreas decreases the production of these enzymes. Therefore, in some patients there is need for long-term treatment with pancreatic enzyme capsules to be taken by mouth with each meal.
Weight loss: it is common for patients to lose weight compared to their weight before their illness. After the operation, patients usually start regaining some of the lost weight by three months after surgery.
Digestion / Diet and Weight Loss
Many patients with Pancreatic Cancer struggle against drastic weight loss which can occur before diagnosis, during treatment and/or after surgery. The following information will give you suggestions for nutritious supplements that will aid in the maintenance or increase in the patients weight.
A patients goal is to maintain a healthy weight, so that a comfortable activity level can be maintained. Each patient, with caregiver support, will have to actively engage in a trial and error process to see what works best for them, however smaller and more frequent meals are recommended. Protein rich meals are also suggested. Dieticians can give advice about diet and supplements that can improve patients’ nutrition. In general, it takes several months for patients’ digestion and ability to eat to return to normal levels.
Malabsorption means the poor digestion and absorption of food, resulting in loose stools that are greasy, pale and tend to float in the water. The pancreas produces enzymes required for digestion of food. Removal of part of the pancreas decreases the production of these enzymes. Therefore, in some patients there is need for long-term treatment with pancreatic enzyme capsules to be taken by mouth with each meal.
The following is a link to PanCan which has an extensive write up regarding weight loss and digestion challenges for patients with Pancreatic Cancer. Pancreatic Cancer Action Network- Diet
Ascites can be a side effect of a patient who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Ascites is the result of fluid in the abdominal cavity. There can be many causes of ascites but pancreatic cancer is the cause we will discuss in this section.
The cause of ascites is usually the result of poor liver function. Caregivers or patients may notice abdominal distension and rapid weight gain. Some people also develop swelling of ankles and shortness of breath. Ascites can cause pain in the patients abdomen and can cause difficulty in breathing. It also may hinder the ability to eat. Other complications can involve the fluid spreading into the patients chest and into the lung cavities.
Ascites, associated with pancreatic cancer, usually is an indication that the end stage of the patient's life is nearing. Limited survival should be considered when determining the aggressiveness of further intervention. With that said there are various treatments that may be suggested by the physician some of which are; diuretics, paracentesis, and peritoneovenous shunting. Although many of these treatments will not prolong life, peritoneovenous shunts can be considered palliative care, as they possibly may keep a patient out of the hospital and improve the quality of life left.
The following link discusses this phenomenon in more depth and was used as a reference when writing the above information on ascites. The article this link refers to is "Prognostic significance of new onset ascites in patients with pancreatic cancer." http://www.wjso.com/content/4/1/16
There is a long list of risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Some of the most important ones are as follows;
Known risk factors for Pancreatic Cancer
Advanced age: Most of the pancreatic cancers occur in the 6th -7th –8th decade of life
Race: Pancreatic cancer is more common in African Canadians than in Caucasians
Smoking: Smokers develop pancreatic cancer more than twice as often as nonsmokers
Diet: Frequency of pancreatic cancer may be associated with high intakes of meat and fat
Medical factors: Pancreatic cancer is more common in patients who have a history of cirrhosis (a chronic liver disease), chronic pancreatitis, diabetes, and surgery to the upper digestive tract.
Environmental factors: Long-term exposure to certain chemicals, such as gasoline and related compounds, as well as certain insecticides, may increase the risk of developing cancer of the pancreas.
Genetic predisposition: As many as 10% of all cases of pancreatic cancer are related to genetic disorders (e.g., BRCA2 gene mutation, PRSS1 gene mutation, hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer [HNPCC; Lynch syndrome], Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.
Risk factors you Cannot Influence:
There are two risk factors which a person has no control over. These would be your age and family history.
Risk factors you Can Influence:
Smoking: People who smoke have two–three times the chance of getting pancreatic cancer compared with people who do not smoke.
Diet: A diet high in cholesterol, fried foods, and processed meats, such as bacon and sausage, may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, while a diet high in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Obesity: People who are overweight are 20 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared to those who are not overweight.
Final Stages of Pancreatic Cancer
Though a difficult topic to discuss, many patients and families are often frightened and/or have many questions to ask about death. What will it look like? What will it feel like? What will they experience? What can they do to comfort loved ones? The following section will hopefully address some of these concerns or questions. The following button will give you a detailed look at what you can expect during the final stages of death.
Final Stage of Death
The following was written by Roger C. Bone, M.D., who was dying of cancer. He writes this "Guide to Dying," not from a physician's point of view, but from a cancer patients point of view, although acknowledges that perhaps his medical career assisted him in his ability to write the following.
A Dying Person’s Guide to Dying
How does one prepare for death? This is often is a personal reflection of their own individual needs, however the following are some suggestions on how to continue living when you know you are dying.
Living While Dying
The Canadian Cancer Society - www.cancer.ca - 1-888-939-333
Cancer Care Nova Scotia- www.cancercare.ns.ca
The Johns Hopkins Pathology - pathology.jhu.edu
Penn State Hershey Medical Center
500 University Drive
Hershey, PA 17033
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center - (phone number 212-639-2000)
1275 York Avenue
New York, New York
M.D. Anderson -www.mdanderson.org
Pancreatic Cancer UK - www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk
The Mayo Clinic - http://www.mayoclinic.com
Hospice - http://www.hospicenet.org