Pancreatic cancer

Find out more about pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most feared cancers as it is often devastating. It may develop for several months and even several years before the first symptoms actually appear. Although pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed late, encouraging progress is being made in treating the disease.

The worrying increase in pancreatic cancer

There has been a rather mysterious rise in the number of cases of pancreatic cancer over the past 30 years. Two times more men and three times more women develop it than in the 1980s.

Pancreatic cancer mainly affects the over-40s. Incidence increases from the age of 50 and peaks at the age of 70. The most common risk factors (smoking and obesity) do not by themselves explain this rise. Other risk factors, such as diabetes and exposure to chemicals, have been put forward but without any definite evidence.

Late-appearing symptoms

Most pancreatic tumors are malignant. In 90% of cases, the tumors are adenocarcinomas, i.e. tumors formed from the cells that produce the pancreatic juices. They are located at the head of the pancreas, the part of the organ close to the intestine, and cause digestive problems. The tumor may stay within the pancreas or spread to surrounding tissue. It may block the biliary tract and compress the stomach or the upper section of the intestine. Symptoms often appear when the cancer is at an advanced stage with severe undernourishment and major weight loss. Other symptoms such as jaundice, diabetes or acute pancreatitis in a patient with no previous medical history, are warning signs. Intense pain in the stomach area radiating out across the ribs and spine are also warning signs if they are combined with the previously mentioned symptoms.

Blood tests and imaging to screen for the disease

A blood test is vital as it shows whether the pancreas and other neighboring organs, such as the liver, are malfunctioning. A blood test is used to explore the liver and pancreas to see if there are elevated levels of bilirubin (a component of bile) and liver enzymes, ALAT and ASAT (liver damage) and an increase in pancreatic lipase (damage to the pancreas).

Imaging is used by doctors to view the tumor using different methods, such as ultrasound and an abdomen scan. The radiologist will be able to measure the size of the tumor, assess its impact on the body’s other organs and highlight any complications.

Slowing down or stopping the development of pancreatic cancer

Surgery is possible in 20% of cases. It removes the section of the pancreas on which the tumor has developed. If surgery is impossible, chemotherapy can slow down and even halt the development of pancreatic cancer. Radiotherapy is sometimes combined with this treatment.

Only 1-5% of people survive for five years or more. 20% of those who undergo surgery to completely remove a tumor are alive five years after the operation.


Institut National du Cancer, Le cancer du pancréas : les points clés

Sciences et Avenir, Le cancer du pancréas : pourquoi il reste le plus dangereux ?

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