Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the US and about 7% of all cancer deaths. Because symptoms are often not present in the early stages of this disease, it can be difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer.

The pancreas is an organ in the digestive tract whose two major functions are to help break down the fats and proteins in food (exocrine function) so that the body can properly use them and to help make hormones such as insulin (endocrine function) that balance sugar in the body.

Tumors can develop in either of the two types of cells in the pancreas, but the cause of pancreatic cancer remains largely unknown. Scientists have identified risk factors for pancreatic cancer, but they are wide-ranging. They include:

  • Age; almost 90 percent of patients are older than 55.
  • Men have pancreatic cancer slightly more than women.
  • People who smoke are two to three times more likely to get pancreatic cancer.
  • People who are obese and those who don't exercise much are more at risk.
  • People who have diabetes are more at risk, as are those who have chronic pancreatitis, a long-term inflammation of the pancreas.
  • Family history; although pancreatic cancer can run in families, genetic links are just beginning to be identified that could be useful in future diagnoses.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Because symptoms are often not recognized, pancreatic cancer is typically too advanced to eradicate once it is diagnosed. Symptoms can include

  • Pain or discomfort in the upper part of the belly or abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Enlarged abdomen
  • Yellow skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Weight loss and poor appetite

Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis

The doctor will perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms. During the exam, the doctor may feel a lump (mass) in your abdomen.

Blood tests that may be ordered include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Liver function tests
  • Serum bilirubin

Imaging tests that may be ordered include:

  • CT scan of the abdomen
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • Endoscopic ultrasound
  • MRI of the abdomen

Diagnosis of pancreatic cancer (and what type) is made by a pancreatic biopsy.

If tests confirm you have pancreatic cancer, more tests will be done to see how far the cancer has spread within and outside the pancreas. This is called staging. Staging helps guide treatment and gives you an idea of what to expect.

Multidisciplinary Approach to Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of the tumor.

Surgery to remove the tumor is the best treatment for pancreatic cancer, if the cancer is diagnosed early enough. If the tumor cannot be removed with surgery, physicians may try chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of therapies in hopes of killing the cancer cells or slowing their growth.

With advanced cancer, the goal of treatment is to manage pain and other symptoms.

At the Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center, management of gastrointestinal cancers focuses on preventive measures, early detection and the most advanced forms of treatment.

Some of these cancers are among the most complex and difficult to treat, and patients can take comfort in knowing they are being treated by a team of specialists that is among the most experienced in the country.

It is because of our multidisciplinary approach to pancreatic cancer treatment, that we have been designated by the National Pancreas Foundation as a Pancreatic Cancer Center. Wake Forest Baptist is one of only 2 institutions in North Carolina to hold this designation.

Learn more about the Pancreatic Cancer Center designation.