By Pure Matters

These are some answers to frequently asked questions about pancreatic cancer.

Q: What is the pancreas?

A: The pancreas is a glandular organ, located deep in the abdomen. It is behind the stomach and in front of the spine. The pancreas is about 6 inches long and has a wide head with a body that tapers to a narrow tail. The pancreas makes enzymes and hormones. The enzymes mix with bile to help with the digestion of food, especially fats, sugars, and proteins. The pancreas makes the hormones insulin and glucagon. These hormones help the body control the level of sugar in the blood. Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.

Q: What is cancer of the pancreas?

A: Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in the pancreas. No one is entirely sure why people get this type of cancer. It is thought that normal cells undergo a series of changes, leading to permanent cell changes, and eventually cancer.

Q: What are the different types of pancreatic cancer?

A: Most cancers of the pancreas start in the ducts that carry pancreatic juices. They are called adenocarcinomas. These are less common types of pancreatic cancer.

  • Mucinous cystadenocarcinomas
  • Acinar cell carcinomas
  • Large cell carcinomas

These types are named after the way they look under the microscope. A rare type of pancreatic cancer starts in the cells of the pancreas that make insulin and other hormones. These cells are called islet cells. Cancers that begin in these cells are called islet cell cancers, or endocrine tumors of the pancreas.

Q: What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

A: Pancreatic cancer can grow inside a person's body for a long time before symptoms appear. These are the most common symptoms.

  • Indigestion
  • Yellow eyes, skin, or nails (jaundice)
  • Pain in the abdomen or back
  • Weight loss over several months that is unexpected
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • An enlarged abdomen, from a swollen gallbladder

Digestive problems often happen if the tumor blocks the release of pancreatic juices into the intestines. If this happens, people can have problems digesting fatty foods. This can cause stools to be pale, greasy, bulky, and foul smelling. The stools may also float in the toilet.

Q: What is the treatment for pancreatic cancer?

A: Doctors treat pancreatic cancer in these three ways.

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy

People may have these treatments alone or combined.

Q: What is a pancreaticoduodenectomy?

A: This is the most common type of surgery used to remove tumors from the pancreas. It is also called the Whipple procedure. The surgeon removes all of these during the procedure.

  • The head of the pancreas (the body of the pancreas may also be removed)
  • Distal common bile duct
  • Duodenum
  • Part of the stomach (possibly)
  • Gallbladder
  • Lymph nodes near the pancreas

After surgery, bile from the liver, food from the stomach, and digestive juices from the remaining part of the pancreas all enter the small intestine.

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion for a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer?

A: Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another doctor. There are many reasons to get a second opinion. These are some of the reasons.

  • The person is not comfortable with the treatment decision.
  • The type of cancer is rare.
  • There are different ways to treat the cancer.
  • The person is not able to see a cancer expert.