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Finding out You Have Pancreatic Cancer

separator 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 intestine.

The pancreas is a complex organ, but to put things simply, it has two main functions:

  • To release hormones that help your body use energy or store energy from food
  • 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
  • Weakness
  • 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 nutritional needs.

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;
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