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The pancreas is part of the digestive system. It makes digestive juices and various hormones, including insulin.
About 9,600 people are diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas in the UK each year.
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Types of pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer may be described by:
- where it is in the pancreas – 6 out of 10 pancreatic cancers start in the head of the pancreas
- the type of cell it started from – we have more information about cell types and pancreatic cancer.
This information is about the most common types of pancreatic cancer which start in exocrine cells. We have information about cancers which sometimes start in the pancreas:
Pancreatic cancer may not cause symptoms for a long time. Some people may only have one symptom.
Some possible symptoms are:
- Pain in the upper part of the tummy (abdomen) that sometimes spreads out into the back
- Signs of jaundice such as yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes or itchy skin
- Unexplained weight loss.
Most people with these symptoms will not have pancreatic cancer. They may be caused by other more common conditions. But if you have any symptoms, it is important to get them checked by your doctor.
We have more detailed information about pancreatic cancer symptoms.
Doctors do not know what causes pancreatic cancer. But things called risk factors can increase the chance of a person developing it. For example, being older is a risk factor. Most people who develop pancreatic cancer are 65 or over.
Some other risk factors include, smoking, drinking a lot of alcohol regularly and having had a previous cancer.
We have more information about the causes and risk factors of pancreatic cancer.
If you have symptoms, you usually begin by seeing your GP. If your GP thinks cancer could be causing your symptoms, they will refer you to hospital. If you are aged 60 or older, they may refer you urgently. They may arrange an urgent CT scan or ultrasound within 2 weeks. If you are 40 or older and have jaundice, you should see a specialist within 2 weeks.
Some people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after being admitted to hospital because a symptoms is making them unwell.
At hospital you will have tests and get specialist advice and treatment. To diagnose pancreatic cancer, doctors often use information from several tests, along with your symptoms and medical history.
If you are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you may need more tests. These are to find out the size and position of the cancer. They will also let doctors know whether it has spread to other parts of the body.
You may have some of the following tests:
Magnetic resonance cholangio-pancreatography (MRCP)
An MRCP magnetic and radio waves to get a detailed picture of your pancreas, bile ducts and liver. It is a type of MRI scan, but is not available in every hospital. The scan shows any narrowing or blockages in the pancreatic ducts or bile ducts.
An endoscopic ultrasound is when they use a thin flexible tube (endoscope) to look down into your stomach at the pancreas and other organs. It can be used to take samples of tissue (biopsy) or see how far a cancer has spread.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP)
Not everyone needs a biopsy. Your doctor will explain if it would be helpful in your situation.
We have more information on having a biopsy for pancreatic cancer.
Surgery to look inside the tummy
The surgeon puts a thin tube called a laparoscopy through a small cut they make in your tummy. You have this done under a general anaesthetic.
Rarely if a laparoscopy is not suitable you may have a bigger operation called a laparotomy instead. This is when the surgeon makes a larger cut in the tummy so they can see the pancreas.
A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.
Knowing the stage and grade of pancreatic cancer helps doctors decide the best treatment for you.
A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).
Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about certain things to think about when making treatment decisions.
We have more information about how different treatments are used for pancreatic cancer.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer may include:
Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is the most common treatment for pancreatic cancer. You may have it to control the cancer and its symptoms. Some people who have surgery may have chemotherapy to try to shrink the cancer first. Or chemotherapy may be given after surgery.
Treatment for symptoms
Most people with pancreatic cancer have treatments to control symptoms and make them feel more comfortable. This is an important part of your treatment and care. It's sometimes called supportive care.
Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells. It is not often used to treat pancreatic cancer. It may be given with chemotherapy (chemoradiation) to shrink a cancer before surgery. It can also be given if the cancer has just started to spread but surgery isn't possible. It is also used to manage symptoms such as pain.
Research is going on to find more effective treatments for pancreatic cancer.
You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial. Or you may be invited to take part in a trial of a new drug or treatment.
Finding out you have advanced cancer can be difficult to cope with. You may feel shocked and find it hard to understand or accept. You may have questions about what to expect. Your doctor and specialist nurse are there to help.
We have more information about coping with advanced cancer.
After your treatment, you will have regular follow-up appointments. You will also have follow-up appointments if you are having supportive care. You may keep going to the hospital for these appointments, or you may go to your GP. Sharing the appointments between the GP and hospital is sometimes called a shared care agreement.
You may continue to have regular scans and blood tests, including CA 19-9 tests. Tell your doctor or specialist nurse as soon as possible if you have any problems or new symptoms between appointments.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our pancreatic cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
British Society of Gastroenterology. Guidelines for the management of patients with pancreatic cancer peri-ampullary and ampullary carcinomas. 2005.
European Society for Medial Oncology. Cancer of the pancreas: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2015. 26 (Supplement 5): v56 to v68.
Fernandez-del Castillo. Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging of exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate online. Jan 2018.
Fernandez-del Castillo C, et al. Supportive care of the patient with locally advanced or metastatic exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate online. Feb 2017.
Winter JM, et al. Cancer of the pancreas, DeVita Hellman and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition). Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. 2016.
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.
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