Pancreatic cancer

We hear a lot about certain types of cancer, like breast cancer or prostate cancer, but what about pancreatic cancer? Although it is among the deadliest cancers in Canada, little is known about it. Find out more about this type of cancer by reading the following.

The pancreas: the big unknown

The pancreas is an organ located in the upper abdomen behind the stomach. It has two essential functions; the first is to release hormones in the bloodstream. Hormones are like messengers that control other body functions. The pancreas secretes two main hormones, insulin and glucagon. These hormones are responsible for controlling blood glucose (sugar levels in the blood).

The second function of the pancreas is to produce substances called “digestive enzymes”, which help the digestion of food. Once they have been produced, these enzymes travel to the small intestine through a conduit called the “pancreatic duct.”

Pancreatic cancer

All of the body’s organs and tissue are made up of many cells. Cancer occurs when certain cells begin to multiply abnormally. Pancreatic cancer most often affects the area of the pancreas that is responsible for the secretion of digestive enzymes in the pancreatic duct. Cancer only affects the area of the pancreas that is responsible for the secretion of hormones in approximately 5% of cases.

When cancer affects an organ, abnormal cells sometimes travel from this organ to other parts of the body. This cell migration leads to the formation of metastases (secondary cancer sites). Therefore, when cancer is diagnosed early, before the formation of metastases, chances for survival are improved.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages because there are often no symptoms. Thus, it isn’t rare for this type of cancer to be diagnosed at an advanced stage, after the metastases have formed in other organs. This makes pancreatic cancer one of the deadliest cancers.

Risk factors

Pancreatic cancer mostly affects individuals aged 65 years and older. Nonetheless, people of all ages can be affected by it. There are various factors that increase the risk of suffering from this type of cancer. A few of them are non-modifiable, such as:

  • certain genetic problems
  • certain diseases (chronic pancreatitis and diabetes)
  • a family history of pancreatic cancer

Fortunately, other risk factors of pancreatic cancer are modifiable, namely:

  • smoking
  • obesity
  • exposure to various chemicals (some pesticides and colouring agents, among other things)
  • excessive alcohol consumption (a direct link to pancreatic cancer remains to be confirmed)

Avoiding these risk factors allows you to reduce the threat of pancreatic cancer. In fact, smoking constitutes the most important risk factor for this type of cancer. If you are considering to quit smoking, your pharmacist can help you in various ways:

  • by helping you establish an action plan
  • by recommending a smoke cessation aid, like a nicotine replacement product (patch, chewing gum, lozenges, inhaler, spray) or a prescription drug, and advise you on how to use them
  • by giving you valuable advice that can make quitting smoking permanently, easier

Therefore, you shouldn’t hesitate to talk to your pharmacist to obtain help to quit smoking.

Signs and symptoms

In the early stages, pancreatic cancer often goes unnoticed because there are few or no apparent symptoms. As the disease progresses, the following signs and symptoms appear:

  • feeling of fullness in the abdomen
  • bloating
  • nausea and vomiting
  • reduced appetite
  • diarrhea
  • oily stool
  • pain in the abdomen irradiating to the back
  • yellowish skin
  • fatigue, general malaise

These signs and symptoms can also be associated to other less serious conditions. If you are bothered by or worried about certain signs and symptoms, talk to a healthcare professional.

Treatment

Different treatments can be considered to combat pancreatic cancer. In some cases, especially when cancer is detected early, the treatment aims to heal, in other cases, treatment aims to ease symptoms and prolong life.

The main available treatments are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapy (use of medications that specifically target cancer cells). Choice of therapy largely depends on the patient’s general health as well as the site and stage of the cancer.

Following a cancer treatment can be difficult both mentally and physically. Fortunately, pharmacists are there to help you and are available to answer your questions and concerns about your treatment. They can also offer valuable advice to limit the side effects associated to your treatment.

Don’t hesitate to ask your pharmacist for advice before using any over-the-counter medication or natural health product. Pharmacist will ensure that the medication you take is compatible with your cancer treatment and that it does not interfere with its effectiveness or safety. They can also inform you about the benefits and risks of any over-the-counter treatment you wish to follow.

What the future holds

There is still a lot to learn about pancreatic cancer. Current research is mostly aimed at developing better screening and treatment techniques. Researchers hope that the data collected will help improve survival rates and quality of life for people who have this type of cancer.

The fight against cancer is a major challenge. Your pharmacist is an important ally when faced with this challenge. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice concerning your treatment. Being well-informed and surrounding yourself with the best support possible, will allow you to lead a determined battle against cancer.

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Pancreatic cancer

We hear a lot about certain types of cancer, like breast cancer or prostate cancer, but what about pancreatic cancer? Although it is among the deadliest cancers in Canada, little is known about it. Find out more about this type of cancer by reading the following.
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