Note: The information on cancer types on the ACRF website is not designed to provide medical or professional advice and is for information only. If you have any health problems or questions please consult your doctor.
The pancreas is a small gland in the abdomen, located behind the stomach. It produces many important hormones, such as insulin, as well as enzymes that help the body to digest food.
Pancreatic cancer occurs when damaged cells grow in an uncontrolled way. When the genetic materials that contain instructions for all biochemical processes within the pancreas are damaged or mutated, cancer cells are allowed to replicate. However due to the location of the pancreas – deep within the abdomen – cancer can be difficult to diagnose and is often found at an advanced stage.
Pancreatic cancer often starts within the cells of the pancreatic ducts, and these then spread to the rest of the pancreas. As pancreatic cancer grows it infiltrates into surrounding nerves, blood vessels and the lymphatic system, where it can then travel to other organs or locations within the body (this is called metastasis).
Approximately 60% of pancreatic cancers arise in the head of the pancreas, with 15% in the pancreas ‘body’, and 5% in the ‘tail’.
There are many different types of cancers in the pancreas, including:
Researchers have found – by mapping more than 100 pancreatic cancer cells – that up to 2,000 genetic mutations can play a role in the development of pancreatic cancer. This information helps to explain why pancreatic cancer is so difficult to treat and is paving the way towards the development of more targeted treatments.
In saying this, they estimate that 5-10% of pancreatic cancers could be inherited – with genetic mutations passed down through families, causing susceptibility to pancreatic cancer. These inherited factors include the BRCA2 gene, Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome, Hereditary Pancreatitis, Familiar Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma, and Lynch Syndrome.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect, given its hidden location behind the stomach, small intestine and spleen.
Furthermore, symptoms can be vague, and aren’t often noticeable until the cancer is large enough to touch (feel), at which point it will have started affecting nearby organs.
Treatment plans will be based on several factors, including the severity and spread of the tumour, and the patient’s general health and age. If the tumour is advanced and has spread throughout the body, combinations of treatments are used to help relieve symptoms and improve, or help to maintain, quality of life.
The most common treatment options for pancreatic cancer patients are surgery, endoscopic treatment, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Surgery will depend on the location of the tumour within the pancreas, and the extent to which it has spread:
Other surgeries are referred to as ‘palliative’ surgery, and they are performed to significantly ease symptoms and improve quality of life. These will involve bypassing the cancerous tissue by, for example, sewing the stomach directly to the small intestine to allow normal eating behaviours, or re-routing the bile flow from the liver to the intestines.
As an added treatment after surgery, chemotherapy will usually be advised. It may be scheduled in combination with radiotherapy.
In cases where the cancer is very advanced, chemotherapy might be preferred to surgery (which can cause complications for the patient). This treatment is designed to relieve symptoms, rather than cure the cancer.
new cases are estimated to be diagnosed in 2018
is the estimated five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer
years is the median age of diagnosis
Together we can change the statistics and outsmart cancer for good
Cancer in Australia 2017, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
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