Pancreatic Cancer and You

Medically Reviewed by
Davinderbir Pannu, MD
McLeod Digestive Health Center

In South Carolina, statistics point to 1,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer each year.

“The pancreas is an organ that measures about six to seven inches long and sits largely behind the stomach,” says McLeod Interventional Gastroenterologist Dr. Davinderbir Pannu. “It is involved in the secretion of hormones and enzymes that help regulate metabolism and levels of different chemicals, such as glucose. Most cases of pancreatic cancer occur after the age of 60 and rarely does it occur before the age of 40.”
Initial signs of pancreatic cancer are vague and non-specific, making early diagnosis difficult. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include:

  • Abdominal pain or back pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Presence of pancreatic cysts
  • Research also suggests that a new diagnosis of diabetes after the age of 50 could be an early sign of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cysts are exceedingly common. About ten percent of adults over age 70 will develop cysts within the pancreas. Not all pancreas cysts are pre-cancerous, but certain cysts need to be examined by a gastroenterologist.

Unfortunately, because of the vagueness of symptoms, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed only in later stages after the cancer has spread to other organs.

Smoking, excessive alcohol use and a history of chronic pancreatitis are the largest risk factors for pancreatic cancer. In South Carolina, smoking rates are some of the highest in the country, as is the usage of alcohol. A history of pancreatitis increases a person’s risk of cancer by six times.

Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS), MRI and CT scans are the primary technologies used to evaluate the pancreas. EUS is an innovative tool that offers the ideal way to appraise the pancreas, primarily because the endoscope can be inserted in the stomach or small intestine from where the pancreas can be easily assessed. To limit risks, the EUS technique is combined with a CT/MRI to closely evaluate and assess pancreatic cysts and other diseases of the pancreas.

Currently, screening for pancreatic cancer is not generally recommended. However, because five to ten percent of pancreatic cancers have an inherited genetic component, patients with a parent, sibling or child with pancreatic cancer should be screened. The guidelines for screening are a constantly evolving topic among physicians and medical researchers.

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