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A cancer challenge: Pancreatic cancer

Most people probably don’t know what the pancreas does, or even where it is located, but each year more than 37,000 newly diagnosed pancreatic cancer patients get an unfortunate lesson in human biology.

Pancreatic cancer is the eleventh most common cancer in this country, and is one of the hardest cancers to diagnose and treat. It is the fourth most deadly cancer in both men and women.

Understanding the facts

The pancreas is located behind the stomach, inside a loop formed by the small intestines. It produces digestive enzymes and the hormone insulin. Insulin regulates the body’s blood sugar and is needed to convert food into energy. When cancer attacks the pancreas, it stops food from being absorbed properly, which may cause diarrhea and weight loss. Patients can also develop high blood sugar because insulin production is disrupted. Because the symptoms are often vague, pancreatic cancer isn’t usually diagnosed until it has advanced.

What you can do

The two main controllable risk factors for pancreatic cancer are smoking—responsible for one-third of cases—and a diet high in meat and fats. In addition, Spanish researchers found that eating more fish may have a protective effect. In their study of 18,000 people, those who ate two or more servings of fish a week lowered their risk of pancreatic cancer by as much as 50 percent.

At the doctor’s

To test for pancreatic cancer, your doctor will perform blood and imaging tests and do a biopsy of any tumors. Because the pancreas is surrounded by several organs, including the stomach, small intestine and liver, several tests may be necessary before doctors can deliver a diagnosis.

Treatment

If cancer is diagnosed, the three main treatments are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Depending on the cancer’s stage, all or part of the pancreas may be removed. After surgery, the patient may require pancreatic enzymes and medication to prevent stomach ulcers (which are likely after this surgery). On the horizon may be an immunotherapy approach that uses an anticancer “vaccine” made from the cancer cells themselves.