There is no such thing as routine pancreatic cancer. Every patient’s pancreatic cancer is different, with different, individually unique genes and molecules driving each person’s specific cancer.
At the OSUCCC – James, our pancreatic cancer specialists are world-renowned cancer experts who focus solely on pancreatic cancer and who reach across medical disciplines (oncologists, surgeons, radiologists, gastroenterologists, hepatologists, pharmacists and more) to design the very best treatment plan and therapies to target each patient’s specific cancer.
And by offering access to the country’s most advanced clinical trials right here at the OSUCCC – James, patients know that additional options, when needed, are often available for their treatment and care.
Facts About Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is the second most prevalent cancer of the gastrointestinal area, and about 46,000 cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. About 90 percent of pancreatic cancers develop in duct cells. The disease can be difficult to detect or diagnose early because patients often have no symptoms or have symptoms that are similar to other illnesses.
People who smoke and are obese or who have diabetes or chronic pancreatitis are at higher risk for pancreatic cancer.
What Is a Pancreas?
The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen that is mostly responsible for making enzymes that help you digest food and for important hormones, such as insulin. Most pancreatic cancer forms in the gland’s cells responsible for the digestion of food. Sometimes, pancreatic cancer forms in the part of the pancreas that produces hormones.
The pancreas performs two important functions in your body:
- The exocrine gland makes pancreatic juices containing enzymes to help the stomach digest foods. The pancreas releases these juices into the intestines. Most of the cells in the pancreas are exocrine cells.
- There are fewer endocrine cells in the pancreas than exocrine cells. The endocrine cells tend to locate in small groups that are called islets. The endocrine gland of the pancreas makes important hormones, especially insulin and glucagon. These hormones help control your body’s blood sugar levels and help the body use and store energy from foods.
Pancreatic Cancer Types
There are two main types of pancreatic cancer and many subtypes. The types are associated with the types of pancreas cells, which are exocrine and endocrine.
Just as exocrine cells make up most of the pancreas, most pancreatic cancer is the exocrine type. Most of the exocrine cancers are a subtype called adenocarcinoma, which starts in gland cells. Other types of exocrine cancer are rare, but include:
- Ampullary cancer
- Adenosquamous carcinoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
- Signet ring carcinoma
Endocrine cancers are rare and also are called neuroendocrine tumors, pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors or islet cell tumors. These types of pancreatic cancer are either called functional or nonfunctional. A functional tumor causes the gland to make extra amounts of a hormone, causing symptoms in the patient.
Nonfunctional neuroendocrine tumors spread and grow, but do not cause production of extra hormones. Nonfunctional tumors are usually malignant, or cancerous.
Most pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are named after the types of hormones made by the cells in which the tumor develops:
Gastrinomas develop in cells that make a hormone called gastrin. This hormone causes the stomach to release an acid that aids in food digestion.
Some endocrine cells make insulin, the hormone that manages how much glucose, or sugar, is in your blood. Insulinomas form in the cells that create insulin, and often are not malignant tumors.
Glucagonoma is a type of endocrine tumor that develops in the cells that make glucagon, a hormone that increases how much glucose is in your blood. Glucagonomas cause high blood sugar and usually are malignant.
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer can vary, based on the type and stage of cancer. Some of the symptoms include:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- Light-colored stools
- Dark urine
- Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back
- Weight loss for no known reason
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling very tired
(Source: National Cancer Institute)
Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Cancer Symptoms
Neuroendocrine tumors cause symptoms because a tumor’s continued growth affects nearby organs such as the liver, or more often because the tumor affects how many hormones the islet cells make. Nonfunctional pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors usually cause:
- Indigestion and diarrhea
- Back or abdominal pain
- A lump in the abdominal area
Functional pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors cause symptoms based on the types of hormones affected by the tumor. Examples are listed below.
With too much of the hormone gastrin, your stomach makes too much acid, causing:
- Stomach and back pain that is relieved temporarily with antacids
- Gastroesophageal reflux
- Recurring stomach ulcers
- Bleeding (and black, tarry stools) and anemia from severe ulcers
When an insulinoma causes too much insulin to be made, the body’s glucose levels go down, a condition called low blood sugar. Symptoms of low blood sugar include:
- Weakness and shakiness
- Rapid heartbeat
- Blurred vision
Glucagonoma increases glucagon levels, causing high blood sugar, and sometimes diabetes. Symptoms include:
- Frequent urination
- Feeling thirsty and hungry
- Unexplained weight loss
- Skin rashes on the face, legs or stomach
If you have received a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, or if you want a second opinion or just want to speak to a pancreatic cancer specialist, we are here to help you. Call 800-293-5066 or 614-293-5066 to make an appointment.