Cancer Care

Pancreatic Cancer

MaineHealth provides services for the diagnosis and treatment of pancreas cancer. This cancer is a relatively rare, occurring in about 50,000 patients every year in the United States.  Approximately 40,000 patients will die of this disease, making it the 10th most common cause of cancer death.

Evaluation by an expert multidisciplinary team can ensure patients receive optimal treatment.

What is pancreas cancer?

The pancreas is an organ about 6-9 inches long between your stomach and spine. The pancreas makes hormones (such as insulin) and digestive enzymes. The most common pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma. Pancreas cancer occurs when the normal cells begin to grow uncontrollably. Pancreatic cancer is aggressive, often invading adjacent organs and it spreads early.

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Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer

Patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer often have no significant risk factors. Researchers have found that certain risk factors to be associated with a higher likelihood of this disease. These risk factors include a close relative with pancreas cancer or and inherited cancer syndrome, smoking, diabetes, inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), a diet high in fats, and obesity.

Patients May Have Few or No Symptoms at First

Symptoms also can be general and overlooked. They include:

  • Weight loss without dieting
  • No appetite
  • Stomach and back pain
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen
  • Nausea
  • Feeling overly tired
  • Yellowing skin and eyes

Initial Testing Can Involve Scans

The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer can be difficult. Initial testing often involves CT, MRI, PET, and ultrasound scans. Advanced endoscopic procedures can help with diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer.

  • ERCP is a procedure where a gastroenterologist passes a lighted scope into the first part of your intestine to the bile and pancreatic ducts.  
  • Endoscopic ultrasound involves the gastroenterologist using a similar lighted scope with a special ultrasound tip that can visualize the pancreas.

The gastroenterologist can use these techniques to perform a biopsy.

Patients May Have a Combination of Treatments

Treatment options for patients with pancreatic cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and radiation therapy.  Often patients will be given the combination of these treatments. Surgery is the only curative therapy for pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately,  at the time of diagnosis, a minority of patients are candidates for surgery. Preoperative treatment with chemotherapy and radiation can increase the ability to remove tumors. For patients who are not candidates for surgery, life can be extended and symptoms improved by treating with chemotherapy, targeted agents, and radiation.