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Pancreatic Cancer

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in the pancreas. The pancreas is located just behind the stomach. It helps digest food by making enzymes. The pancreas also makes hormones, such as insulin, to help balance blood sugar levels.


What increases my risk for pancreatic cancer?

  • Smoking

  • Diabetes

  • Long-term pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

  • Excess alcohol intake

  • Obesity or a high-fat diet

  • A family history of long-term pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer

What are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

You may have the following signs and symptoms depending on the location and size of the tumor:

  • Abdominal or low back pain

  • Weight loss without trying

  • Loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting

  • Fatigue and weakness

  • Dark urine or light-colored bowel movements

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

  • An ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI can help show the tumor. You may be given contrast dye to help the tumor show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.

  • An endoscopy is a procedure where your healthcare provider uses a scope to check for a tumor. An endoscopic ultrasound uses sound waves to show your pancreas on a monitor. An endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) may also be used to help open a narrow or blocked bile duct.

  • A biopsy is a procedure to remove a small piece of tissue from your pancreas. A biopsy may be done during an endoscopic ultrasound or ERCP, or with a needle. The tissue sample will be sent to a lab to be tested for cancer.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

  • Surgery is done to remove part or all of your pancreas and lymph nodes near your pancreas. It is most often done for tumors that have not spread to other parts of the body. The kind of surgery you need will depend on the size and location of the tumor.

  • Chemotherapy is medicine that kills cancer cells. Chemotherapy may also be used to shrink the tumor before surgery.

  • Radiation therapy uses x-rays or gamma rays to treat cancer. Radiation kills cancer cells and may stop the cancer from spreading. It also used to reduce symptoms, such as pain.

How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Rest as needed. Rest often throughout the day. Alternate times of activity with times of rest.

  • Eat small meals throughout the day. You may not feel hungry, but it is important that you eat. Proper nutrition can give you more energy, maintain your weight, and help you feel better. A dietitian can help you find ways to get enough protein, calories, vitamins, and minerals. Ask if you need to take a pancreatic enzyme supplement with meals to help with digestion.

  • Do not smoke. If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. Ask for information if you need help quitting.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You cannot control your pain, even after you take pain medicine.

  • Your abdomen is bloated.

  • You have diarrhea, light-colored or oily, foul-smelling bowel movements.

  • You have new or worsening weight loss, jaundice, or back pain.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • Your arm or leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.

  • You suddenly feel lightheaded and short of breath.

  • You cough up blood.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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