Awareness: November Is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month
What is pancreatic cancer?
The pancreas is an organ found deep in the body, behind the stomach. It is shaped a little bit like a fish. It is about 6 inches long and less than 2 inches wide. It goes across the belly (abdomen).
The pancreas contains 2 different kinds of glands. The exocrine glands make pancreatic "juice." This juice has enzymes which break down fats and proteins in the foods you eat so the body can use them. Most of the cells in the pancreas are part of the exocrine system. A smaller number of cells in the pancreas are endocrine cells. These cells are arranged in clusters called islets. They make hormones like insulin that help balance the amount of sugar in the blood.
Both the exocrine and endocrine cells of the pancreas can form tumors. But tumors formed by the exocrine cells are much more common. When someone says that they have pancreatic cancer, they usually mean an exocrine pancreatic cancer. Not all of the tumors in the pancreas are cancer. A small number are not cancer (benign).
It is important to know whether a tumor is from the exocrine or endocrine part of the pancreas. Each type of tumor has its own signs and symptoms, is found using different tests, is treated in different ways, and has a different outlook for survival (prognosis).
What are the key statistics of pancreatic cancer?
The American Cancer Society's most recent estimates for pancreatic cancer in the United States are for 2011:
- About 44,030 new cases of pancreatic cancer
- About 37,660 deaths from pancreatic cancer
The lifetime risk of having pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 71. It is about the same for both men and women. A person's risk may be changed by certain risk factors.
We still do not know exactly what causes most cases of pancreatic cancer. But some risk factors have been linked to the disease. A risk factor is something that affects a person's chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be controlled. Others, like a person's age or race, can't be changed.
Recent research has shown that some of these risk factors affect the DNA of cells in the pancreas, which can lead to abnormal cell growth and may cause tumors to form. DNA is the substance in each cell that carries our genes -- the instructions for how our cells work.
See the American Cancer Society's web page for more details on the risk factors for pancreatic cancer.
How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?
It is hard to find pancreatic cancer early. Because the pancreas is deep inside the body, the doctor cannot see or feel tumors during a routine physical exam. By the time a person has symptoms, the cancer is usually large and has spread to other organs. This is the main reason that people with this cancer often have a poor outlook.
Right now there are no blood tests or other tests that can easily find this cancer early in people without symptoms. Doctors are looking at whether a test called endoscopic ultrasound can be useful to screen people with a high risk of pancreatic cancer. Levels of tumor markers such as CA 19-9 and CEA may be higher than normal in people with pancreatic cancer, but the cancer is usually advanced by the time the levels become high.
Tests for certain genes in people with a strong family history of the disease can help tell if they are at higher risk for this cancer. These tests are not used to screen the general public. The American Cancer Society strongly recommends that any person thinking about genetic testing talk with a genetic counselor, nurse, or doctor who can explain the about the test before they proceed with testing.
What we're doing at the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research
Breakthrough research! Purdue research points to new treatment for pancreatic cancer