November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month — a good time to look around at what is happening in the fight against a very difficult-to-treat cancer.
Your pancreas is located deep in your abdomen, behind your stomach. It contains different types of cells that have different jobs.
Exocrine cells make pancreatic juices (digestive enzymes), which help break down the foods you eat. About 95 percent of pancreatic cancers are in the exocrine cells.
Endocrine cells, found in clusters throughout the pancreas, are islet cells. They make the hormones — such as insulin and glucagon — that regulate the level of sugar in your blood. Only about 5 percent of pancreatic cancers begin in the endocrine cells. They’re called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, or PNETs.
Endocrine cells release hormones directly into your bloodstream. Exocrine cells release their enzymes into your small intestine through ducts.
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Difficult to Diagnose
In the early stages, pancreatic cancer may not cause any symptoms. When symptoms do occur — bloating, nausea, back pain or upset stomach — they can be easily attributed to something else. Tests and procedures such as MRIs, CT scans, biopsies, endoscopies and blood tests may be used to look for a tumor, and if one is found, a biopsy may be done to see if the tumor contains cancer cells.
Difficult to Treat
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat because it’s usually advanced by the time it is diagnosed. Surgical options may be limited, and traditional chemotherapy has not shown to be very successful. In recent years, immunotherapy has provided long-term remission for some people with certain cancers, but not so for tumors in the pancreas. Patients should consider clinical trials when exploring treatment options. A discussion with your doctor will help you decide if a clinical trial is right for you.
There are many advantages to seeking treatment for pancreatic cancer at a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, where doctors specialize and are experienced in treating the disease. Pancreatic cancer specialists often take a coordinated approach to treatment, providing a team of medical professionals to develop a personalized care plan for each patient.
In addition to chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, patients may consider such complementary treatments as mind and body practices (yoga, acupuncture, relaxation techniques), and nutritional counseling. Complementary therapies may help relieve symptoms and side effects, and improve the quality of life.
Education, Resources and Support
- The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PANCAN): phone: 877-623-6639 (Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Pacific Time)
- The Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research
- National Cancer Institute – Pancreatic Cancer
- The Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research
- CancerConnect: Roswell Park Online Community
- Inspire: Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumor (PNET) Support Community