Pancreatic cancer 

Introduction 

Anatomy of the abdomen 

Reduce your cancer risk

Eating a balanced diet, being a healthy weight and drinking less alcohol could reduce your cancer risk

Around 8,800 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the UK each year, making it the 11th most common cancer.

Cancer of the pancreas is more common in older people, with about half of all new cases diagnosed in people who are aged 75 or over. It's uncommon in people under 40 years of age.

Pancreatic cancer affects men and women equally.

The pancreas

The pancreas is a large gland that's part of the digestive system. It's about 15cm (six inches) long, and is located high in the abdomen, behind the stomach, where the ribs meet at the bottom of the breastbone.

The pancreas produces:

  • digestive enzymes – which break down food so it can be absorbed into the body
  • hormones – including insulin, which helps keep your blood sugar levels stable

Pancreatic cancer

In the early stages, a tumour in the pancreas doesn't usually cause any symptoms, which can make it difficult to diagnose.

The first noticeable symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often:

It's important to remember that these symptoms can be caused by many different conditions, and aren't usually the result of cancer. However, you should contact your GP if you're concerned, or if these symptoms start suddenly.

Read more about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

Causes of pancreatic cancer

It's not fully understood what causes pancreatic cancer, but risk factors for developing the condition have been identified.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • age  it mainly affects people who are 50-80 years of age 
  • smoking
  • having a history of other health conditions – such as diabeteschronic pancreatitis (long-term inflammation of the pancreas), stomach ulcer and Helicobacter pylori infection (a stomach infection) 

Read more about the causes of pancreatic cancer.

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer

Your GP will ask about your general health and carry out a physical examination.

They will check your skin and eyes for signs of jaundice, and you may also have a urine and blood test.

Your GP may also examine your tummy (abdomen) for a lump and to see whether your liver is enlarged.

If your GP suspects pancreatic cancer, you may be referred to a specialist at a hospital for further investigation. You may have an ultrasound scancomputerised tomography (CT) scan, or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

Read more about diagnosing pancreatic cancer.

Treating pancreatic cancer

Cancer of the pancreas is difficult to treat. It rarely causes any symptoms in the early stages, so it's often not detected until the cancer is fairly advanced. If the tumour is large, treating the cancer will be more difficult.

If you've been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, your treatment will depend on the type and location of your cancer, and how far it's advanced. Your age, general health and personal preferences will also be taken into consideration.

The first aim will be to completely remove the tumour and any other cancerous cells. If this isn't possible, treatment will focus on preventing the tumour growing and causing further harm to your body.

The three main treatments for pancreatic cancer are:

Some types of pancreatic cancer will only require one form of treatment, whereas others may require two types of treatment or a combination of all three.

Read more about treating pancreatic cancer.

Recovering from surgery

The recovery process after surgery to remove a cancerous tumour can take a long time.

Following surgery, you will probably have a six-month course of chemotherapy, which will greatly increase your chance of being cured.

Read more about recovering from pancreatic cancer surgery.

Page last reviewed: 10/07/2014

Next review due: 10/07/2016

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