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Pancreatic cancer care

Comprehensive, holistic services to diagnose and treat people with pancreatic cancer.

Allina Health offers a complete range of services to diagnose and treat pancreatic cancer. We also support all aspects of your well-being – mind, body and spirit – through every phase of treatment. 

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What it is

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

It occurs when cancer cells form and grow within the pancreas. These tumors are hard to diagnose early, since pancreatic cancer signs and symptoms aren’t obvious. Because of this, most of these cancers are diagnosed after the disease has reached an advanced stage, when treatment options are limited.

The pancreas is an organ located behind the lower stomach. It releases enzymes and hormones that are needed for digestion and blood sugar control.

The most common type of pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. Another type of pancreatic cancer is a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.   

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are vague and easily confused with common aches and pains. That’s why it is often difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer at an early stage. Symptoms may include:

  • bloating, indigestion or a feeling fullness
  • dark urine and light-colored stools
  • decreased appetite
  • fatigue
  • jaundice  
  • nausea and vomiting  
  • pain in the upper or middle back
  • sudden onset of diabetes
  • unintentional weight loss  
  • upper abdominal pain

Good to know

The exact causes of pancreatic cancer are not known. But there are some risk factors that increase the chance of getting pancreatic cancer.

Some risk factors can be changed, including:

  • Obesity. Being very overweight (having an elevated body mass index, or BMI) increases your chance of developing pancreatic cancer by 20 percent.
  • Smoking and tobacco use. People who smoke are about twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as nonsmokers.

Other pancreatic cancer risk factors can’t be changed, including:

  • Age. The risk for this type of cancer increases sharply after age 55.
  • Chronic pancreatitis: Long-term inflammation of the pancreas is linked with increased pancreatic cancer risk, especially in smokers.
  • Diabetes: People with long-standing history of type 2 diabetes have an increased likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Family history: Genetic changes passed down through families may account for about 10 percent of pancreatic cancers. People who have these changes have a higher risk of some types of cancer, including pancreatic cancers. Examples of genetic syndromes that can cause pancreatic cancer include hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, Lynch syndrome and hereditary pancreatitis (recurring episodes of inflammation of the pancreas).
  • Race: African-Americans are more likely to have pancreatic cancer than other ethnic groups.

Good for preventing

Generally, there is no screening test for pancreatic cancer. But if pancreatic cancer runs in your family, you may benefit from genetic counseling.

There is also no sure way to prevent pancreatic cancer. Some of the risk factors, like age or family history, can’t be changed. But these steps can reduce your risk:

  • Avoid workplace exposure to pesticides, dyes and certain chemicals.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.

Good for treating

Your medical team will work closely together to coordinate the tests and procedures needed for your diagnosis and treatment, and they will explain what you should expect. 

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer usually requires a number of tests. You may have different types of imaging tests so your doctor can see what’s going on inside your body.  You may also have a biopsy, which involves removing a small piece of tissue and examining it.  

Diagnostic tests may include:

  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • endoscopic ultrasound
  • endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • biopsy
  • blood tests for liver function and bilirubin

Your treatment plan for pancreatic cancer will consider the tumor’s type, size and location, whether the cancer has spread and your general health.

Together, you and your health care team will create an individualized cancer treatment plan based on your health, cancer stage and your needs.  

Treatment can include:

  • surgery 
    • Potentially curative surgery is an attempt to treat the pancreatic cancer by removing the pancreas.
    • Palliative surgery is an attempt to relieve symptoms. For example, a stent placement may be done to keep the bile ducts open.
  • chemotherapy (medical oncology)
  • radiation therapy

Source: Allina Health Cancer Care
Reviewed by: Allina Health Cancer Care

First published: 5/29/2019
Last reviewed: 5/29/2019