Around 9,600 people in the UK are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. It is the 11th most common cancer and can, unfortunately, be difficult to treat if diagnosed too late so understanding symptoms is vital.
To mark Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month, this November, we are sharing some basic facts about this increasingly common form of cancer.
Function of the pancreas
So, the first question is what is pancreatic cancer? Unless you can remember your school biology lessons, or you work in a clinical setting, you might not even know where your pancreas is, or what it does.
The pancreas is located quite high up in your abdomen, just behind your stomach. It is about six inches long and shaped like a leaf. It is a large gland that makes digestive juices and insulin, as well as other hormones to do with digestion.
There are two different parts to the pancreas – the part that produces the digestive juices ,which is called the exocrine pancreas, and the part that produces hormones, including insulin, which is called the endocrine pancreas.
Cancer can develop in either of these two parts, producing different symptoms.
Pancreatic cancer is more common in older people than young people. It is rarely found in people under 40. Almost half of all new cases are diagnosed in people aged 75 and over.
In England, pancreatic cancer tends to people living in poorer areas and is more common in White and Black people than in Asian people. The disease affects men and women equally.
In the past 10 years, pancreatic cancer rates have increased and incidence of the disease is expected to continue to rise.
Most people with pancreatic cancer experience pain in the stomach or back. They often describe this pain as a dull pain that feels like it’s boring into you. It can start in the stomach before spreading around to the back. Lying down often makes the pain worse while sitting up makes it better. It can also be worse after meals.
Jaundice is also common. Look out for yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin. Urine may be darker than usual and poo lighter. Sudden unexplained weight loss is common too, particularly with cancers that occur in the head part of the pancreas.
Alongside these common symptoms, the following symptoms occur less frequently: diabetes, itching of the skin, sickness possibly leading to loss of appetite, fatty poo that smells and can be difficult to flush away, fever, indigestion and blood clots in the veins.
The causes of pancreatic cancer aren’t known but it is believed to be linked to smoking, age, diabetes, obesity and chronic pancreatitis.
There are rare hereditary conditions that increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Treatment options depend on the position of cancer in the pancreas, how big it is, whether it has spread and your general health. Your doctor will discuss with you whether cancer can be removed. If it is removable, or borderline removable, you are likely to be offered surgery, possibly followed by chemotherapy.
If the cancer has spread, unfortunately it usually cannot be treated. You will be offered treatment to control the disease, relieve the symptoms and give you a good quality of life for as long as possible.
The earlier a cancer is picked up, the more effective treatment can be so it is important to see your doctor straight away if you experience any of the symptoms described.
A specialist gastroenterologist can promptly diagnose your symptoms and discuss all possible treatment options with you.