Pancreatic cancer, which affects around 7,000 people in the UK each year, is relatively uncommon and is particularly rare in people under the age of 50.
The most common type of pancreatic cancer is ductal adenocarcinoma. This type of cancer starts in the cells in the inner lining of the pancreatic ducts, the channels through which digestive juices produced by the pancreas flow into the small bowel. Other rarer types of pancreatic cancer include: neuroendocrine tumours; lymphoma; and pancreatic sarcoma.
If pancreatic cancer is detected in the early stages, you may be able to have surgery to remove the cancer. However, because it is difficult to detect, by the time your cancer is diagnosed it may already have spread to other parts of your body and may not be curable. If this is the case, there are a number of treatments that can improve your quality of life and help you to live longer. The type of treatment you will be offered depends on which part of your pancreas is affected and how much the cancer has spread.
You are more likely to get pancreatic cancer if you:
- Are aged 60-80 although some rare types may affect younger people
- Smoke – around a third of pancreatic cancers are linked to smoking
- Have or have had pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Have diabetes (although most people with diabetes will not get pancreatic cancer)
Pancreatic cancer may not cause symptoms for a long time. The most common symptoms are pain in the upper abdomen (tummy), sometimes spreading to the back; weight loss; and jaundice. Other symptoms may include nausea, indigestion, bloating after meals and fatigue.
Diagnosis may be difficult because symptoms are not always obvious. Your doctor may examine you for jaundice, test your urine for bile and do a blood test. You may also have an abdominal examination to feel for any swelling. At the hospital you may have further diagnostic tests including: CT scan, ultrasound, MRI scan, ERCP, EUS, biopsy and laparoscopy.
Treatment includes surgery to remove all or part of the pancreas if the cancer is small, and in the early stages. You will also be offered chemotherapy as well as treatments to control your symptoms and make you feel more comfortable.
The outlook for pancreatic cancer depends on how far the cancer has progressed when it is diagnosed. If it is diagnosed early, you will have a better chance of successful treatment, which may be surgery. However, if your cancer is diagnosed when it is advanced, and is not suitable for surgery, the chances of recovery are reduced. Other factors that may affect your outlook include how good your general health is, and the ‘grade’ of cancer you have. This means the level of the abnormality of your cancer cells compared with normal cells. The higher the grade, the more quickly the cancer is likely to grow.