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Definition of pancreatic cancer:
A disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the tissues of the pancreas. Also called exocrine cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is a pear-shaped gland about 6 inches long. The wide end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow end is called the tail. Many different kinds of tumors can form in the pancreas. Some tumors are benign (not cancer).
Anatomy of the pancreas. The pancreas has three areas: head, body, and tail. It is found in the abdomen near the stomach, intestines, and other organs.
The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:
- To make juices that help digest (break down) food. These juices are secreted into the small intestine.
- To make hormones that help control the sugar and salt levels in the blood. These hormones are secreted into the bloodstream.
The risk of pancreatic cancer is increased by having Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome or Cushing syndrome.
Symptoms and Diagnostic and Staging Tests
Most pancreatic tumors do not secrete hormones and there are no symptoms of disease. This makes it difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer early.
Pancreatic tumors that do secrete hormones may cause symptoms. The symptoms depend on the type of hormone being made.
If the tumor secretes insulin, symptoms that may occur include the following:
- Feeling very tired.
- Low blood sugar. This can cause blurred vision, headache, and feeling lightheaded, tired, weak, shaky, nervous, irritable, sweaty, confused, or hungry.
Other symptoms caused by tumors that make hormones include the following:
- Watery diarrhea.
- Abnormal sodium (salt) level in the blood: Having a low sodium level can cause confusion, sleepiness, muscle weakness, and seizures. Having a high sodium level may cause weakness, tiredness, confusion, paralysis, coma, and seizures.
- A lump in the abdomen.
- Weight loss for no known reason.
- Pain in the abdomen.
If cancer is in the head of the pancreas, the bile duct or blood flow to the stomach may be blocked and the following symptoms may occur:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
- Blood in the stool or vomit.
Check with your child’s doctor if you see any of these problems in your child. Other conditions that are not pancreatic cancer may cause these same symptoms.
Tests to diagnose and stage pancreatic cancer may include the following:
- Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- X-ray of the chest: An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
- CT scan: A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the chest, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
- PET scan: A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radionuclide glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
- Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer.
Other tests used to diagnose pancreatic cancer include the following:
- Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): A procedure in which an endoscope is inserted into the body, usually through the mouth or rectum. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. A probe at the end of the endoscope is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. This procedure is also called endosonography.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): A procedure used to x-ray the ducts (tubes) that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder and from the gallbladder to the small intestine. Sometimes pancreatic cancer causes these ducts to narrow and block or slow the flow of bile, causing jaundice. An endoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is passed through the mouth, esophagus, and stomach into the first part of the small intestine. A catheter (a smaller tube) is then inserted through the endoscope into the pancreatic ducts. A dye is injected through the catheter into the ducts and an x-ray is taken. If the ducts are blocked by a tumor, a fine tube may be inserted into the duct to unblock it. This tube, called a stent, may be left in place to keep the duct open. Tissue samples may also be taken and checked under a microscope for signs for cancer.
- Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC): A procedure used to x-ray the liver and bile ducts. A thin needle is inserted through the skin below the ribs and into the liver. Dye is injected into the liver or bile ducts and an x-ray is taken. If a blockage is found, a thin, flexible tube called a stent is sometimes left in the liver to drain bile into the small intestine or a collection bag outside the body. This test is done only if ERCP cannot be done.
- Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the abdomen to check for signs of disease. Small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen and a laparoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted into one of the incisions. Other instruments may be inserted through the same or other incisions to perform procedures such as removing organs or taking tissue samples to be checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
- Laparotomy: A surgical procedure in which an incision (cut) is made in the wall of the abdomen to check the inside of the abdomen for signs of disease. The size of the incision depends on the reason the laparotomy is being done. Sometimes organs are removed or tissue samples are taken and checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
Treatment for children with pancreatic cancer may include the following:
- Surgery to remove all or part of the pancreas and part of the small intestine.
For more information on Childhood Pancreatic Cancer click here
This link is to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) cancer website in the United States. There may be references to drugs and clinical trials that are not available here in Australia.
For information about clinical trials that are available in Australia click here