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Pancreatic Cancer

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is a gland located deep in the abdomen between the stomach and the spine (back bone). It is about 6 inches long and less than 2 inches wide. It extends across the abdomen.

The pancreas is really two separate glands inside the same organ. The exocrine gland makes enzymes to break down fats and proteins in foods 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 (or islets of Langerhans) and make hormones (such as insulin) that help balance the amount of sugar in the blood.

Both the exocrine and endocrine cells of the pancreas can form tumors. Those formed by the exocrine pancreas are much more common. Tumors in the exocrine part of the gland are likely to be cancer. Tumors of the endocrine cells are much less common.

Facts: According to the Illinois State Cancer Registry, about 1,620 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in Illinois and about 1,510 Illinoisans will die of the disease in 2008.

What are the Causes and Risk Factors of Pancreatic Cancer?

The causes of most cases of pancreatic cancer are unknown. Several risk factors have been linked to the disease, including the following:

Age: The risk of this cancer increases with age with almost all cases in persons older than 50 years.
Gender: Men have this cancer more often than women.
Race: African Americans are more likely to have this cancer than whites.
Smoking: The risk of this cancer is higher among smokers. Heavy smoking increases the risk two to three times.
Diet and obesity: A diet high in meats and fat and being obese also may increase the risk.
Diabetes: Pancreatic cancer is more common in people with diabetes.
Chronic pancreatitis: This is a long-term inflammation of the pancreas and is linked with a slightly higher risk of pancreatic cancer.
Work exposure: Some chemicals such as certain bug sprays, dyes or gasoline products may increase the risk of this cancer.
Family history: Cancer of the pancreas seems to run in some families. Changes in DNA that increase the risk for certain other cancers also increase the risk of this cancer.
Stomach problems: Having too much stomach acid or having bacteria called Helicobacter pylori in the stomach may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

What are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?

The following can be symptoms of pancreatic cancer:

  • jaundice, yellow color of the eyes and skin caused by a buildup of a substance (bilirubin) that is made in the liver
  • pain in the belly area (abdomen) or in the middle of the back (common sign of advanced pancreatic cancer)
  • unexplained weight loss over a number of months
  • tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • pale, bulky, greasy and floating stools
  • problems with blood sugar

It is important to report any of these symptoms to a doctor.

How to Prevent Pancreatic Cancer

There is no sure way to prevent cancer of the pancreas at this time. Common preventive measures include:

  • Avoid smoking.
  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Cut down on red meats, especially those that are processed or high in fat.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and get regular exercise.