Whether you or a loved one are worried about developing pancreatic cancer, are going through treatment or are trying to stay well after treatment, we’re here for you every step of the way.
What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in the United States. However, it can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages.
Cancer of the pancreas develops when the healthy, normal cells that line the pancreas begin to “go rogue” by growing and functioning in a different way. These cancerous cells build up and form a mass called a tumor, which exists as a lump inside your pancreas.
What does the pancreas do?
The pancreas is a small, pear-shaped gland in your abdomen that’s part of your digestive system. It produces important enzymes that help you break down food and hormones that regulate blood sugar.
Inside your pancreas are two types of cells:
- Exocrine cells, which are responsible for producing enzymes that help you digest food. About 95 percent of pancreatic cancers develop in the exocrine cells.
- Endocrine cells, which are the hormone-producing cells in the pancreas. Endocrine tumors are much less common and make up about 5 percent of pancreatic cancers.
Signs of pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer is often referred to as a “silent” disease because its signs and symptoms can go unnoticed early on. Common symptoms that can appear in its more advanced stages include:
- Feeling bloated or full
- Dark urine or light-colored stools
- Jaundice or yellowing of the skin or eyes
- Middle back or stomach pain
- Sudden weight loss
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lack of appetite
Having these symptoms does not mean you have pancreatic cancer. However, it’s still important to talk to your doctor, as these could be signs of an underlying health issue.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cancer for men and women in the United States. Although the causes of most cancer in the pancreas are still unknown, research has identified certain risk factors that increase your chances of developing the disease:
- Obesity: People who are obese are about 20 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
- Smoking: Cigarette smoking is one of the more prominent risk factors. About 20 to 30 percent of pancreatic cancers are attributed to smoking. By stopping smoking, your risk reverts back to average in about 10 years' time.
- Age: The chance of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age, most often affecting people older than 45.
- Gender: Pancreatic cancer affects more men than women.
- Diabetes: It’s not known why, but pancreatic cancer is more common in people with diabetes, especially those with Type 2 diabetes. Whether diabetes is a consequence or cause of pancreatic cancer is not clear; however, cases of new-onset diabetes in older, thin individuals should prompt a screening.
- Inherited genetic syndromes: Gene changes that can be passed from parent to child are attributed to about 10 percent of exocrine pancreatic cancers. Examples of these genetic disorders include Lynch syndrome, hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, familial pancreatitis, Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.
How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?
Because pancreatic cancer symptoms often do not appear until the disease is in its later stages, pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose.
We offer screening tests that use the most advanced technology to better detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages, when it’s most treatable. Some of the diagnostic tests your doctor may perform to test for pancreatic cancer include:
- Imaging tests – Your doctor may take an image of your pancreas and surrounding areas. Imaging tests can be used to discover possible tumors, detect if a tumor has spread and evaluate whether treatment is working. These types of diagnostic tests may include computed tomography (CT) scan, MRI scan and endoscopic ultrasounds.
- Biopsy – During a biopsy, your doctor will remove a small sample of tissue to detect whether it contains cancerous cells (also called malignant cells). The tissue will be examined under a microscope and is removed using a thin needle or during a surgical procedure.
- Blood test – Your doctor may order blood work to look for certain indicators of pancreatic cancer or monitor how your treatment is progressing.
Treating pancreatic cancer
At Geisinger, our highly trained team of pancreatic cancer specialists includes surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurse navigators and support staff who come together to develop a personalized treatment plan around you. Our cancer specialists are experienced in advanced detection and treating all stages of pancreatic cancer, and have access to leading-edge technology and innovative clinical trials.
Depending on the type and stage of your pancreatic cancer, one or more of the following treatments may be recommended:
At Geisinger, our surgeons use the latest techniques to treat pancreatic cancer, including minimally invasive and robotic surgery, to offer you the best outcomes and path for healing.
Our surgeons are board certified, which means they have passed an optional national exam to demonstrate their medical expertise. Many of our surgeons are also fellowship trained, holding additional training in specific types of cancer surgery.
The two main pancreatic cancer surgeries are:
- Potentially curative, which attempts to remove the cancerous tumor inside your pancreas.
- Palliative, which focuses on relieving the symptoms caused by the cancer.
Chemotherapy is a drug-based treatment designed to slow the growth of or shrink tumors located in the pancreas.
Chemotherapy drugs can be given through an IV or taken in a pill form.
The timing of your chemotherapy may be given:
- Before your surgery, to attempt to reduce the size of the tumor
- After your surgery, to destroy any cancer that still remains in the pancreas and reduce the chances of the cancer coming back
- Along with radiation therapy, which together are known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy
At Geisinger, our team includes doctors called medical oncologists who specialize in chemotherapy. Our patients have access to clinical trials that include testing new chemotherapy drugs and combinations of medications that aren’t widely available.
Keeping you comfortable while you undergo treatment is important to us. Our state-of-the-art clinics, many which have been recently renovated, offer heated seats and individual TVs to help you stay comfortable during treatment.
Radiation oncology uses radiation to control or destroy harmful cancer cells, with tools to treat each unique cancer.
Our board-certified cancer doctors and highly skilled clinical team deliver conventional radiotherapy treatments that include:
- External beam radiation, which uses special technology to send radiation to the tumor from outside the body
- Internal radiation, which targets the tumor using safe levels of radiation inside the body
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), which uses a 3D image of the tumor to deliver high-precision radiotherapy that fits its exact outline
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT), which is used to treat cancers in areas of the body that move during and between treatments, like the lungs
CyberKnife® robotic radiosurgery is a non-invasive treatment for tumors that are hard to reach or inoperable. This robotic therapy targets complex tumors — including cancerous and non-cancerous tumors — by delivering high doses of targeted radiation safely, anywhere in the body. And it’s offered at the Frank M. and Dorothea Henry Cancer Center at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre.
No incisions involved. So you have quicker treatments, less pain and faster recovery. Learn more about CyberKnife.
Pancreatic cancer care at Geisinger
Cancer is unique to each person, which is why our team gets to know you along your journey. While some of our cancer specialists are trained in treating specific cancers, our entire team works together to help you fight your cancer.
Our pancreatic cancer specialists are dedicated to providing innovative treatments and personalized cancer care. We offer:
- Unmatched expertise – Our cancer team consists of surgeons, doctors and specialists, many of whom are fellowship trained. This team of highly trained specialists treats many patients with pancreatic cancer and other cancers each year, and is focused on delivering the most personalized, excellent care that is suited to each patient’s needs.
- World-class care, close to home –With several locations throughout central, northeast and south-central Pennsylvania, our experienced cancer team provides consultations and comprehensive care. We offer leading-edge treatment options and tailored-to-you care backed by the expertise and innovation of a nationally recognized health system.
- Comprehensive specialty care – From chemotherapy, radiation and minimally invasive surgery options to national clinical trials and genetic testing, our pancreatic cancer specialists are dedicated to offering innovative treatment options and personalized care in convenient locations, so you don’t have to travel far. We’ll work with you to develop a personalized care plan based on your individual needs.
- Leading-edge clinical trials – Our extensive history with cancer research and clinical trials gives you access to new treatments before they become widely available. Participating in a trial may help you get better even if standard approaches haven’t worked. Find a clinical trial.
- Genetic testing and counseling programs – Our cancer genetics programs determine whether you face a higher-than-normal cancer risk. Special programs such as MyCode®, which are only available at Geisinger, detect the earliest signs of certain cancers so you can start treatment right away. Our care and guidance may even help you avoid a cancer diagnosis. Learn more or sign up for MyCode.
- Cancer survivorship program – Just because your treatment is complete doesn’t mean your journey has ended. We offer a variety of support resources focused on helping you live your healthiest life. Learn about patient resources.