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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Pancreatic cancer

Your pancreas is an organ that lies behind your stomach. It makes enzymes that help break down food so it can be digested. It also releases hormones, particularly insulin. Insulin is important for regulating the amount of sugar in your bloodstream.

Several types of tumour can occur in the pancreas. They can be cancerous or non-cancerous. The most common cancer starts in the cells lining the ducts of the pancreas. This is called pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma.

Anyone can be affected by this cancer. It is commonly found in people over the age of 45. Pancreatic cancer is slightly more common in Māori and Pasifika peoples.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer

We do not know the exact cause of pancreatic cancer, but things that increase your risk include:

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

In the early stages, pancreatic cancer may not cause any symptoms. If the cancer blocks the bile duct from your liver, it can cause your skin and the whites of your eyes to become yellow (called jaundice).

If the cancer spreads, it is more likely to cause symptoms, which can include:

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer

Most people will need to have several tests and scans to confirm pancreatic cancer:

To confirm the diagnosis, a sample of the tumour may be removed. This is done by an endoscopic ultrasound and biopsy. An endoscope is a flexible tube that is passed through your mouth and down to your stomach. It has an ultrasound attached to get pictures of your pancreas. It can also be used to get a tissue sample.

Treating pancreatic cancer

If your health professional suspects pancreatic cancer, they will refer you to a specialist.

The treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on several things. These include how far it has spread, how severe your symptoms are and what you prefer.

If you have jaundice, you may need a small stent put in to relieve the blockage that is causing the jaundice.

Many surgeons perform a laparoscopy (keyhole surgery). This is to confirm that the cancer has not spread. If the cancer has not spread, they can operate to remove the tumour.

Other treatment may include chemotherapy, which can be before or after surgery. Some people may need radiotherapy, which can also be done before or after surgery. Occasionally, people can have it without surgery to help minimise their symptoms.

If diagnosed early, pancreatic cancer can be cured. Unfortunately, it generally has poor long-term survival. This is because it is usually diagnosed once it has spread. It is important to investigate symptoms quickly. Then pancreatic cancer can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

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Written by Te Aho O Te Kahu Cancer Control Agency. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created December 2023.

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Page reference: 1305403

Review key: HIPAN-1305403