Pancreatic cancer is a malignant tumour of the main tissue of the pancreas. Smoking, a high-fat diet and alcohol abuse are risk factors.

Pancreatic cancer is more common over age 50 and almost twice as common in men. Cancer of the pancreas is a relatively uncommon cancer, with about 7000 new cases diagnosed in the UK each year. The tumour may be symptomless in its early stages.

Symptoms of Pancreatic cancer

Symptoms often develop gradually over a few months and may include:

  • pain in the upper abdomen that radiates
  • to the back
  • loss of weight
  • reduced appetite.

Many pancreatic tumours cause obstruction of the bile ducts through which the digestive liquid bile leaves the liver. Such blockage leads to jaundice, in which the skin and whites of
the eyes turn yellow. Jaundice may be accompanied by itching, dark-coloured urine and lighter than normal faeces.

Treatment of Pancreatic cancer

Surgery to remove part, or all, of the pancreas offers the only chance of cure. However, the cancer has usually spread by the time it is diagnosed. In such cases, surgery to relieve symptoms may be possible. For example, if the bile duct is obstructed by a tumour, a rigid tube known as a stent may be inserted to keep the duct open. This procedure is usually done during endoscopic examination of the pancreas (ERCP; see box, above) and helps lo reduce jaundice. Treatment such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy may be used co slow the progress of the disease.
Pain can often be relieved with analgesics. Severe pain may be treated by a nerve block, a procedure using an injection of a chemical to inactivate the nerves supplying the pancreas.

Experts Views

In many cases, pancreatic cancer is not diagnosed until it is far advanced, at which time the outlook is poor. Fewer than 1 in 50 people survives more than five years. Even with surgery’, only 1 in 10 people survives more than five years. Most people survive for less than a year.