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Pancreatic Cancer

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Last updated June 11, 2022

Pancreatic cancer quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pancreatic cancer.

Take pancreatic cancer quiz

What is pancreatic cancer?

There are two types of cancer that start in the pancreas. Cancers of the pancreatic ducts (adenocarcinomas) make up more than 90% of cases; the rest are cancers of cells that produce insulin.

Cigarette smoking and chronic pancreatitis may increase the risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Because the initial symptoms are subtle, pancreatic cancer often spreads significantly before it is diagnosed. The outlook is poor.

Most pancreatic tumors affect the head of the pancreas. When they grow larger, they can block the outflow of bile from the liver and bile ducts into the intestine. This causes bilirubin, an orange-yellow pigment, to build up in the body.

Symptoms

Vague abdominal discomfort is often the only symptom of pan­cre­atic cancer as the tumor

Develops. Another symptom is gnawing pain, radiating from the abdo­men to the back, that improves when you bend forward. As it progresses, you may have the following symptoms:

In people with tumors of hormone-producing cells, the symptoms depend on the hormone that is overproduced. Most often, excessive amounts of insulin are produced, leading to low blood sugar levels and faintness, confusion, trembling, and sweating.

Treatment

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, blood tests, abdominal imaging such as ultrasound or CT scan, and sometimes biopsy of the pancreas or other minor surgical procedure to help make the diagnosis.

Treatment involves a combination of several methods, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery to remove all or part of the pancreas. Some treatments are given to help relieve some of the symptoms and to reduce pain.

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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