Pancreatic Cancer


what is it? Pancreatic cancer has been brought to the forefront by the diagnoses of several prominent figures, including the late actor Patrick Swayze, who died of pancreatic cancer in September 2009, Apple cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs, and U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.   The American Cancer Society estimated that 37,680 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during 2008. Of those diagnosed, 34,290 will die of the disease, making this type of cancer the fourth leading cause of cancer death overall.   What is the pancreas? The pancreas is a 6-inch-long spongy, tube-shaped organ located in the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach. It has two major jobs in the body:   It makes digestive juices (enzymes) that help the intestines break down food. It produces hormones — including insulin — that regulate the body’s use of sugars and starches.   What causes pancreatic cancer? Aside from advanced age, smoking is the main risk factor for pancreatic cancer; a smoker is three to four times more likely than a nonsmoker to acquire the disease. People frequently exposed to certain petroleum products may also be at increased risk. Excessive alcohol, dietary fat, and protein, as well as low fiber intake, may also promote the disease. Diabetes is also linked to pancreatic cancer, with 10% to 20% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer also having diabetes.   What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer? Pancreatic cancer has been called a “silent” disease because early pancreatic cancer usually does not cause symptoms. If the tumor blocks the common bile duct and bile cannot pass into the digestive system, the skin and whites of the eyes may become yellow, and the urine may become darker. This condition is called jaundice. As the cancer grows and spreads, pain often develops in the upper abdomen and sometimes spreads to the back. The pain may become worse after the person eats or lies down. Cancer of the pancreas can also cause nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss, and weakness.