Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer (pancreatic carcinoma) is a fairly rare form of cancer. It usually affects people aged over 60 and men develop the disease more frequently than women. For a long time, pancreatic cancer has very few or only non-specific symptoms. The disease is often detected only once it has reached an advanced stage. Treatment depends on how far the cancer has progressed and may involve surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Causes and risk factors

The pancreas is one of the digestive organs in the body. It produces digestive juices for the small intestine and the hormone insulin to regulate the metabolism of sugar. The organ is situated in the upper abdominal area and cannot be felt from outside the body.

Pancreatic cancer is a fairly rare form of cancer and accounts for around 3% of all cancer diagnoses. The disease primarily affects older people. Men are at greater risk of pancreatic cancer than women. It usually affects people aged over 60 and men develop the disease more frequently than women. The exact causes of this cancer are unknown.

Besides age and gender, the risk factors also include the following:

  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Chronic inflammation of the pancreas
  • Overweight
  • Familial predisposition

Symptoms

In its early stages, pancreatic cancer exhibits very few or non-specific symptoms. The pancreas is situated centrally in the upper abdomen behind the stomach. As a result, tumours are unfortunately often not discovered until they have reached an advanced stage.

Symptoms pointing to pancreatic cancer may include the following:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fatigue

If the cancer causes pain, it is usually a diffuse belt-like pain around the upper abdomen. Depending on the position of the tumour, jaundice may occur, albeit without any pain. This makes the skin and eyes appear yellow and is frequently the first sign of pancreatic cancer. However, in such cases the cancer is usually already quite advanced.

Diagnosis of pancreatic cancer

A range of medical imaging procedures is used to diagnose pancreatic carcinoma:

They include radiological and endoscopic examinations.

Ultrasound examinations, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) generate images of the pancreas and other organs in the upper abdominal area. A gastroscopy can be performed to examine the pancreatic ducts.

Surgical and conservative treatment

The main form of treatment for pancreatic cancer is surgical removal of the tumour. Given that pancreatic cancer is usually only discovered at an advanced stage, it is often necessary to remove not only the pancreas but also the duodenum, the gallbladder and a section of the bile ducts. More information about this operation is available in the pancreas surgery section.

To improve the chances of successful surgery, such operations are usually followed by chemotherapy and sometimes by radiotherapy. Chemotherapy interferes with the metabolism of cancerous cells, which inhibits their growth or kills them off altogether. During radiotherapy, the atoms and molecules of the tumour cells are modified (ionised). This therapy may also kill them off.

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