Cancer’s scary, no matter where it arises or what type it is. So why do you see this post related to pancreatic cancer here? The whole internet is overflowing with detailed information related to all sorts of cancer. The problem with all that information is that it’s usually not stated in layman’s terms and most people just think it’s bookish knowledge.
What is Pancreatic Cancer ?
But here’s a daunting fact about pancreatic cancer you might not find anywhere stated in similar terms: It’s stealthy and it kills slowly, so by the time you go the doctor with symptoms as vague and trivial as epigastric discomfort, you might be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which will not be curable owing to the advanced stage it has reached.
I’m not exagerrating at all! Read on if you have your doubts, since it’s always better to get rid of them when it comes to your health. Like the head of Surgery at my college says, ’Leave no stone unturned when you’re looking for even the most trivial information related to what keeps you healthy and what doesn’t – you never know what minor mistakes could lead to irreversible damage!’
The Stats: Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rate and Life Expectancy
Pancreatic Cancer is the fourth most common cause of mortality as a result of malignancy. What is the survival rate of pancreatic cancer, you’re asking? once diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, patients have a negligible 5-year survival rate of only 4 percent. This means that once their doctors tell them they have pancreatic cancer, they will not live for long and most die within the first two years of the diagnosis, an alarmingly small amount surviving till 5 years.
Why Is The Mortality So High ?
Why is that patients with breast cancer or cervical cancer survive and live perfectly normal lives and those with pancreatic cancer or cancer of the bile ducts have to face such a sad ending? That’s because by the time symptoms appear and patients consult their doctors, these cancer has spread too much and is literally incurable. What’s offered at this stage is palliative treatment – measures aimed at making the patient feel comfortable and preventing any further complications due to the malignancy.
The Pancreas – An Overview
The pancreas is a part of the upper gastrointestinal tract embryologically. It contains two types of glands, endocrine and exocrine. The endocrine cells secrete insulin and glucagon which act together to closely monitor your blood glucose levels. The exocrine glands on the other hand secrete a set of digestive enzymes which help in the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats and proteins in your diet. However, the exact location of the pancreas is much more important than its functions in understanding pancreatic cancer.
The pancreas is located deep inside the abdomen, a part of it rests against a curve of the duodenum (a part of your small intestine). Some organs inside the abdomen are located within the peritoneum and some aren’t. The peritoneum is a protective, thin sheet of tissue that covers the organs inside the abdominal cavity and provides a source of attachment, thus instilling stability to the organs rather than letting them ‘float around.’
The pancreas, part of the colon and the urinary system are not located inside this cavity formed by the peritoneum. Sounds like boring medical anatomy, doesn’t it? The thing is, whenever something happens to abdominal organs, they irritate the peritoneum which causes pain. The pancreas does not have this feature. Moreover, it lies deep within the abdominal cavity and cannot be felt by the patient, unless it is grossly enlarged (about 5-10 times its normal size). Thus, a lump in the breast due to carcinoma (in its earliest stages) is much easier to feel as compared to a swelling in the pancreas!
To sum up, the pancreas cannot irritate the peritoneum and small cancers (at their earliest stages) would go unnoticed. Moreover, its location makes it inaccessible which is why the patients won’t feel it growing.
What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer ?
Pancreatic cancer can be present in any of the parts of the pancreas. Different parts produce different symptoms. The head of the pancreas surrounds the duct through which bile is emptied into your small intestine to aid the digestion of fat. The rest of the pancreas lies behind the stomach. About 60 % pancreatic carcinomas arise in the head, 15-20 percent in the body and tail of the pancreas and 20% are spread diffusely. In order to beware of this deadly cancer, you need to keep the following symptoms in mind:
Symptoms of Early Disease: Vague Abdominal Discomfort
This symptom is so vague that it is dismissed by both both the physician and the patient. It might be prominent after meals or be present almost all the time. This symptom is present at both early and late stages, increasing in severity as the cancer progresses.
Last Stage Signs of Pancreatic Cancer: Pain, Fatigue,Weight Loss and Jaundice
Pain is a result of the involvement of adjacent structures and nerves in the abdomen by the malignancy and sadly, it is the most common feature that patients present with. The time of presentation is such that they cannot be saved.
Cancer cells use up the energy in your body and change your metabolism in a way that eventually makes you lose your appetite. The decrease in food intake and increased metabolism result in weight loss. However, you should be warned that this is a very late symptom and most cancers are not curable at the stage this symptom appears, even more so for pancreatic cancer since it is one of the fastest spreading cancers in humans.
The Jaundice is characteristically seen in most patients who have a cancer in the head of the pancreas since a tumor there will block the duct that delivers bile to your intestines. Once that happens, bile will be broken up and its constituents will rise in your blood, one of them is called ‘Bilirubin,’ which is yellowish in color, thus making your skin and the whites of your eyes, yellow. In the early stages, this jaundice is mild and is not readily noticed by the patients. When it becomes noticeable, the cancer has spread too far.
About 8-10 percent of the patients experience a rise in calcium in their blood along with thrombosis of the veins that comes and goes, jumping from one limb to another. The former is seen in most cancers and results in nausea and vomiting, confusion, muscular aches, joint problems, constipation, abdominal pain,etc. The latter is due to substances produced by the tumor that pro-coagulants and result in the formation of clots in the body. These clots dissolve in some time and then form somewhere else. Although rare, these symptoms should also be kept in mind.
Celebrities or Important Figures Who Had Pancreatic Cancer:
The famous actor Patrick Swayze from the films ‘Dirty Dancing’ and ‘Ghost’ was diagnosed in 2008 and passed away in 2009. Numerous other celebrities shared similar fates but one very important figure deserves to be mentioned here – Steve Jobs. The founder and CEO of Apple, Jobs was diagnosed with a rare type of pancreatic cancer (neuroendocrine tumor) and lived for seven years after being diagnosed with it.
Wait..seven years? Doesn’t pancreatic cancer prove fatal within 1-2 years? Yes it does, but that depends on the type. Most carcinomas in the pancreas are adenocarcinomas, the highly aggressive and fatal type. A rare type is neuroendocrine tumors, the ones that don’t spread too fast and can be treated to some degree. That’s why Jobs lived to invent the iPhone 3 years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer!