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Pancreatic Cancer: Facts at a Glance

What is pancreatic cancer?  Pancreatic cancer is swift and silent, often undetected until it’s too late.  The pancreas is an organ of the digestive system located deep in the abdomen behind the stomach.  This deep location is one reason pancreatic diseases are difficult to diagnose.

Pancreatic cancer is the abnormal growth of pancreatic cells in the form of a tumor most commonly found in the exocrine tissues of the pancreas.  These tumors, typically malignant, may lead to the spread of cancerous cell growth in other tissues and organs.  Tumors may also develop in the endocrine tissue of the pancreas and are most often benign. 

Prevalence and Risk Factors: Nearly 90 percent of pancreatic cancer patients are over 55 years old, and 68 percent are over 65.  Pancreatic cancer does occur in younger patients, especially those with negative risk factors such as family history, smoking, poor diet, obesity, diabetes mellitus, chronic pancreatitis and exposure to radiation or chemicals or other environmental factors.  Researchers also have identified statistical anomalies finding increased rates of pancreatic cancer in African-American and Ashkenazi Jewish populations.

Signs and Symptoms:  Pancreatic cancer is called a silent disease because signs or symptoms may not occur, and when they do, may not be uniquely attributable to the disease.  Potential symptoms may include diabetes, fatigue, back pain, abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, jaundice, nausea and inflammation of the pancreas.  Often, diagnosis is made after the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Diagnosis and Treatment: The most commonly used diagnostic tool is imaging, such as MRI and CT scans.  Surgery, which may include removing portions of the pancreas, the duodenum (the beginning of the small intestine) or the spleen, is the only treatment that can eradicate cancerous pancreatic tumors.  Other treatment options include radiation therapy or chemotherapy, any of which may be employed in conjunction with surgery. 

Thanks to research funded by The Lustgarten Foundation

•    We now know so much more about the genetic makeup of this cancer than any other cancer.
•    Families are being examined to determine which genes cause hereditary pancreatic cancer for early detection.
•    Early detection tests are in clinical trials, including blood tests, scanning technologies, and genetic screening.
•    Vaccines are being tested for treating pancreatic cancer.

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