Pancreatic Cancer: Hard To Diagnose, Hard To Treat

Pancreatic cancer is quite possibly the most difficult form of malignancy to treat, largely because it is very hard to diagnose. While the cancer is relatively common, leading to approximately 53,000 new diagnosis every year, the prognosis is rarely favorable.

For patients diagnosed with stage II pancreatic cancer, the 5-year survival rate is between 5% and 7%, according to the American Cancer Society. Unfortunately, due to the disease’s non-specific symptoms and strange effects on the body, up to 95% of patients are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only after the malignancy has spread from the organ in which it began.

What Is The Pancreas?

The pancreas is a large, long gland in the abdominal cavity, directly behind the stomach. As its location may imply, the pancreas’ work is primarily devoted to maintaining healthy digestion, in part by creating insulin, glucagon and several other hormones that regulate your body’s blood sugar levels.

Pancreatic “juices” secreted into the small intestine contain enzymes that help break down food materials and extract their nutrients.

Every pancreas is made up of two basic cell types:

  • Exocrine cells – these cells form the glands and ducts of the pancreas, which manufacture enzymes and deliver them into the small intestine. Most cells in the pancreas are of this type.
  • Endocrine cells – these cells form clusters, known as islets of Langerhans after the German pathologist who discovered them in 1869, which produce hormones, releasing them directly into the bloodstream.

Both types of cells can become cancerous, but the cancers that they become are very different.

Cancers Of The Pancreas

The vast majority of pancreatic cancers are pancreatic adenocarcinomas, which begin when exocrine cells in the organ’s ducts mutate and divide uncontrollably. Far less common are cancers that, while also beginning in exocrine cells, start in the cells that actually manufacture enzymes.

Less than 5% of all pancreatic cancers, classified as islet cell tumors or pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, begin in the endocrine cells. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, or NETs, though, need not be cancerous. Many growths that begin in the organ’s hormone-producing cells are benign.

But benign or malignant, these tumors can themselves produce and secrete hormones. Unfortunately, these hormones, which are being produced by a potentially-cancerous tumor, don’t always cause an identifiable set of symptoms, making them very difficult to diagnose quickly. Fortunately, they’re also considered the simplest pancreatic cancers to treat, usually through a relatively simple surgical procedure.

Symptoms Of Pancreatic Cancer

Early in their development, pancreatic cancers almost never present any signs or symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include:

  • Jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Pain in the back or abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Stool lighter in color than usual
  • Dark urine
  • Extreme fatigue

But all of these signs can be associated with other conditions, and many pancreatic cancers are missed by physicians.

Very common. In fact, an initial pancreatic cancer misdiagnosis may affect up to almost 1 of every 3 patients who are ultimately diagnosed with the disease.

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