Finding out You Have Pancreatic Cancer
The pancreas is a gland that’s located deep in your abdomen, between your
stomach and spine. It’s about 6 inches long and is shaped like a flat pear. The
widest part is called the head, the middle part is the body and the thinnest
part is called the tail. Organs that surround the pancreas or are very close to
it include the stomach, spleen, gall bladder, liver, small intestine and large
The pancreas is a complex organ, but to put things simply, it has two main
- To release hormones that help your body use energy or store energy from
- To produce juices that contain enzymes that help you digest food
The pancreas secretes the digestive juices into a system of ducts that
eventually lead to the common bile duct. The common bile duct empties into the
first section of the small intestine, which is called the duodenum.
The great majority of cancer tumors of the pancreas affect the organ’s ability
to secrete digestive enzymes. Most of these cancer tumors are located in the
head of the pancreas.
The difficult thing about pancreatic cancer is that it’s sometimes called a
silent disease because it often doesn’t cause symptoms until it has reached a
later stage, when it’s harder to treat. Symptoms include:
- Pain in the upper abdomen or upper back
- Yellow skin and eyes, and dark urine
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
How is pancreatic cancer treated?
As with all types of cancers, doctors recommend a treatment that corresponds to
the stage the pancreatic cancer has reached. Treatment decisions are based on
how large the tumor is, where it is, whether the cancer has spread and how far
it has spread.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer is often complicated, first of all because the
disease has often advanced fairly far and also because the pancreas itself is a
complicated organ. Since it interacts directly with other organs and is close to
other organs, there’s greater opportunity for the cancer cells to spread than
there is with some other types of cancers.
Surgery: If your doctor thinks that it’s possible to cure your pancreatic
cancer, it’s likely that you’ll have an operation called the “Whipple
procedure.” The surgeon removes the head of the pancreas and part of the small
intestine, bile duct and stomach. Some nearby tissue may also be removed, if
necessary. It’s a major operation that usually requires several days in the
hospital and up to a month recovering at home. Frequently, patients who have
this surgery need to consume only liquids for a period of time, usually through
a vein or through feeding tubes in the abdomen. Gradually, you can return to
eating solid foods.
If it appears that the cancer has spread too far to be cured, surgeons may still
want to operate to give you symptom relief. For example, a tumor may be blocking
the bile duct, which can cause pain and difficulty digesting your food. Surgery
can help alleviate that.
Radiation and chemotherapy: These may be given alone, in combination or
in addition to surgery. Radiation and chemotherapy are often used together to
shrink tumors and to slow cancer cell growth.
Nutrition: an important element in pancreatic cancer
Treatment for pancreatic cancer can have a big effect on your appetite and the
way you digest food. It can also affect the way you maintain blood sugar. Having
the cancer itself can make you feel uncomfortable and tired and not interested
in eating. Additionally, foods may not taste as good as they used to. Nausea
from the cancer itself or from treatment is common.
But good nutrition is important. It can help you feel better, get stronger, heal
and have more energy. Be sure to work closely with your doctor, nurse
practitioner or dietitian to figure out what you can do to keep up your
nutritional levels. And see the recipe section in this e-magazine for some
quick, easy, appetizing snacks and drinks that might appeal to you when your
appetite isn’t what it used to be.
Talk about pain management with your doctor
Pancreatic cancer and its treatment can cause significant pain. Don’t ever
hesitate to talk with your doctor about any pain you’re having. Medications can
help with pain relief, but it’s important to take them on a regular schedule,
not just when the pain feels severe. Good pain management is something everybody
deserves, so don’t be shy about asking for pain relief.
Having pancreatic cancer can be a difficult process to go through, there’s no
question about that. That’s why it’s so important to have a care team you feel
comfortable with. Make sure you ask your surgeon any questions that come to
mind—about reasons for surgery, what the outcome is likely to be, what your
recovery will be like, how long you will have feeding tubes and anything else
that comes to mind. Ask your doctor for information all along the way—when
you’re diagnosed, when you’re deciding on treatment and when you’re going
through treatment and afterwards. Work closely with a dietitian for your
It all sounds like a lot of work, and at times, it can feel like that. The key
element is to feel confident in and comfortable with your healthcare team, so
that you can discuss your own ideas about your treatment and any doubts and
fears you have. When you feel certain that your healthcare team is there to help
you navigate this cancer, you can focus on doing what you need to do to take
care of yourself.
The American Cancer Society; The National Cancer Institute;