As the name suggests, cancer in the pancreas of our body is called pancreatic cancer. When pancreatic cells start multiplying uncontrollably pancreatic cancer starts. An insight about the organ pancreas will help you understand pancreatic cancer better.
Pancreas is a digestive organ that is situated right behind the stomach. The pancreatic duct later joins the biliary duct (coming from the liver) to empty their contents into the small intestine. Two types of cells are present in pancreas:
- Exocrine cells: Most of the pancreatic cells are exocrine and form the exocrine glands, which release pancreatic enzymes. These enzymes reach the intestines through ducts and aid in fat digestion.
- Endocrine cells: Endocrine cells are also present in the pancreas, in much smaller percentage. They form the islets of Langerhans, which produce hormones like insulin and glucagon and release them into the blood stream.
Types of pancreatic cancer
The endocrine and exocrine cells of the pancreas form very different types of tumors. The difference is evident in their causes, diagnosis, symptoms, as well as treatments.
Exocrine pancreatic cancers
This is the more common type of pancreas cancer, out of the two. Among the exocrine pancreas cancers, around 95% of them start in the ducts of the pancreas.
Endocrine pancreatic tumors
They are also known as islet cell tumors or pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) and are uncommon. Since benign and malignant NETs look similar during their physical as well as microscopical diagnosis, it is difficult to detect the malignancy of this cancer. When the NET spreads outside the pancreatic organ, its cancerous growth becomes clear.
Many types of pancreatic NETs are present, primarily distinguished as under:
Functioning NETs: Hormones that are released by the pancreatic NETs cause the symptoms. These ones are called functioning tumors. The name is given after the type of hormone produced by the tumor cell. Some examples being Gastrinomas, Insulinomas Glucagonomas, Somatostatinomas VIPomas, and PPomas.
Pancreatic cancer causes and risk factors involved:
- Smoking: This is the primary risk factor of pancreatic cancer. All tobacco products are harmful to the pancreas.
- Obesity: Obese people are more at risk to develop pancreatic cancer. Central weight around the girth is especially harmful.
- Chemical exposure: Pancreatic cancer can occur due to intense and prolonged exposure to certain types of harmful industrial chemicals.
- Hereditary factor: Pancreatic cancer caused by family history as well as genetic inheritance is still unclear but is seen as a risk factor nevertheless.
- Diabetic patients: People suffering from diabetes (type 2) are at increased risk of getting pancreatic cancer. The reason for this is not known.
- Chronic pancreatitis and liver cirrhosis patients: If you are suffering from chronic pancreatitis or liver cirrhosis over a long period of time, you are at increased risk of developing cancer.
- Frequent stomach ailments: Frequent stomach infections by bacteria or excess acidity problems also contribute to increasing the risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
- Other factors: Improper diet, no physical exercise, alcohol, etc. are other factors that might increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Signs and symptoms:
Exocrine pancreatic cancer symptoms:
Symptoms are only experienced after the spread of pancreatic cancer to the other body parts.
- Jaundice type symptoms: yellowing of the eyes, skin, and urine; discolored stools.
- Abdominal pain: Back pain and stomach pain.
- Weight loss and appetite loss.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Liver and gall bladder enlargement
- Blood clotting: Blood clots in the leg (deep vein thrombosis) that will cause swelling, redness and pain.
- Abnormalities in the fatty tissue under the skin.
- Diabetes: This is rarely caused.
Endocrine pancreatic cancer symptoms:
- Gastrinomas: Appetite loss, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, anemia due to bleeding, etc.
- Glucagonomas: Diabetes symptoms like thirst and hunger pangs, frequent urination, rashes, etc.
- Insulinomas: Fatigue, sweating, fast heartbeat and confusion.
- Somatostatinomas: Stomach pain, appetite and weight loss, nausea, diarrhea, along with diabetes and jaundice symptoms.
- VIPomas: Watery diarrhea, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, cramps in muscles and flushing, general digestive problem, etc.
- PPomas: Pain in the belly, diarrhea, liver enlargement, etc.
- Carcinoid tumors: are not detected till they spread outside the pancreas. After spreading to liver, symptoms like diarrhea, flushing, wheezing, and an increased heart rate are prominently visible.
- Non-functioning neuroendocrine tumors: These tumors spread to other organs and cause symptoms similar to the ones caused by the exocrine pancreatic cancer like jaundice symptoms, stomach pain, and weight loss.
Symptoms when pancreatic cancers spread to the rest of the body:
These symptoms depend on the part of the body to which cancer has spread.
Awareness, as well as constant health check-ups and diagnosis, are the only way to prevent pancreatic cancer.