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The pancreas is an important organ that often goes overlooked, until its health is compromised. Located in the abdomen, where it is ensconced by the small intestine, liver and spleen, the pancreas plays an essential role in converting food to fuel for the body’s cells. Specifically, the pancreas is responsible for two roles: the exocrine function that helps with digestion, and the endocrine function, which regulates the body’s blood sugar.
Similar to other cancers, pancreatic cancer starts when cells change in a certain way. Beginning in the tissues of the pancreas, this type of cancer poses both an acute and insidious threat to the health of anyone handed a positive diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer is both hard to detect in its early stages, and has the propensity to spread quickly to nearby organs like the liver.
It is important to distinguish between the two types of pancreatic cancers. Ninety-five percent of all pancreatic cancers affect the exocrine, or enzyme-producing, gland. This type of cancer forms in the pancreas ducts and tumors affecting the exocrine gland are called adenocarcinomas. The minority of pancreatic tumors, which affect the endocrine gland, are mostly benign. A rare cancer, this type stems from a pancreatic endocrine tumor and affects the body’s hormone-producing cells.
The symptoms for each type of pancreatic cancer are rather distinct. For exocrine pancreatic cancer, the list of symptoms ranges from the obvious – like jaundice, nausea, weight loss and extremely dark urine – to the subtle, like light-coloured and greasy stool, and itchy skin. Neuroendocrine tumors, on the other hand, typically release excess hormones into the bloodstream, leading to a patchwork of chronic symptoms.
In fact, there are a number of different types of neuroendocrine tumors. This includes gastrinomas, a tumor that makes gastrin, which causes the stomach to make too much acid and leads to a condition known as Zollinger-Ellison syndrome; glucagonomas, an excess of glucagon, a hormone that increases sugar levels in the blood; insulinomas, which lowers the blood glucose levels and causes symptoms like weakness, confusion and sweating. The list of neuroendocrine cancers also includes somatostatinomas, VIPomas, PPomas, and carcinoid tumors.
While the cause of both types of pancreatic cancers is unclear, physicians have identified a list of factors, such as smoking, that can increase a person’s predisposition to the ailment. In addition to cigarettes, doctors have also highlighted obesity and being overweight as other corollaries, and heavy exposure to certain chemicals, usually used in the metal working and dry-cleaning industries, as other potential risk factors.
Because pancreatic cancer is hard to diagnose in the early stages, it poses a crucial threat to anyone diagnosed. In fact, about 95 percent of people with the disease die from it. In the United States, pancreatic cancer is now the third-leading cause of death from cancer, behind lung and colorectal cancer. This year in the U.S. alone, around 55,440 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Sadly, the disease will claim about 44,330 of those lives.
Learn more about the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, ideal nutritional guidelines for patients and Pancreatic Cancer Canada’s peer support program for patients and their loved ones..