The pancreas is a relatively small organ, only measuring about six inches long. It is tucked up high in the abdomen, sheltered by the junction of breastbone and ribs, and its purpose is to create and distribute digestive hormones and insulin.
Once a tumour takes hold in the pancreas, it can be very hard to diagnose as often there are few or no symptoms. The first symptoms, when they do occur, are sudden weight loss, jaundice and pain – all of which can be caused by other conditions too. Diabetes may develop as a result of the malignancy, and nausea and vomiting can also become apparent. Pancreatic tumours are more commonly found in men, and tend to only strike at those aged 50 to 60, with most sufferers being in their seventies. It is very rare to find in those under the age of forty. Approximately ten percent of all cases are thought to have some hereditary cause, with the odds of contracting the condition doubling for those with one direct relative with the disease, rising exponentially if there are multiple sufferers in the family. About one third of all sufferers are smokers, and there is believed to be a strong correlation between smoking and the occurrence of the disease.
Once a doctor is concerned about the possibility of a tumour in the pancreas, he or she will physically examine the abdomen and perhaps send the patient for an ultrasound scan. Sometimes ultrasound waves cannot penetrate deep enough to see if there is a problem with the pancreas, in which case a CT scan or MRI might be ordered. Occasionally an endoluminal ultrasonography will be performed. This is the passing of a thin flexible tube through the mouth and towards the stomach. A small camera mounted at the end of the tube will be able to take very clear pictures of the pancreas, giving the doctors a good idea of what they are dealing with.
There are essentially three treatments available for pancreatic tumours: surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Which treatment is used, and in what measures is decided on a case by case basis; dependent on the patient's age and state of general health, how far the condition has progressed and exactly where the tumour is located. As mentioned above, as this type of malignancy is rarely picked up early, this can have a serious impact on the efficacy of pancreatic cancer treatment, which is usually a blend of all three, but can sometimes just consist of one or two of the above options.
Recovery after surgery is a long and slow, sometimes painful process, accompanied by up to six months of chemotherapy. Digestion may be interrupted, and the patient may find themselves restricted to sips of water for a short time, before being allowed to gradually introduce certain foods again. The patient will have a consultation with a dietitian to be made aware of what to eat during recovery. Sadly, many people do not recover from this illness, due to the delay in diagnosis.
- It is the 7th most common tumor found in men, and the 8th most common for women.
- Many doctors and oncologists feel that pancreatic carcinomas are the hardest to treat.