Although it is relatively unknown, pancreatic cancer is nevertheless one of the most deadly cancers in Canada. 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 consists of releasing hormones in the bloodstream that act like messengers that control other body functions. The pancreas secretes two main hormones, insulin and glucagon. They are responsible for controlling blood glucose (sugar levels in the blood).
The second function of the pancreas is to produce digestive enzymes that 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 most often affects the area of the pancreas that is responsible for the secretion of digestive enzymes in the pancreatic duct. It only rarely affects the area that is responsible for the secretion of hormones, i.e. in about 5% of cases.
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 is why pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest ones.
Pancreatic cancer primarily affects individuals aged 65 years of age 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, like certain genetic problems and diseases (chronic pancreatitis and diabetes), as well as a family history of pancreatic cancer.
Fortunately, other risk factors of pancreatic cancer are modifiable, namely:
- 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)
By promoting prevention of these risk factors, you can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer. It is important to note that smoking is the most significant risk factor. If you are considering to quit smoking, speak to your pharmacist, who can inform and help you.
Signs and symptoms
In the early stages, pancreatic cancer often goes unnoticed as there are few or no apparent symptoms. As the disease progresses, the following signs and symptoms appear:
- feeling of fullness in the abdomen
- nausea and vomiting
- reduced appetite
- oily stool
- pain in the abdomen irradiating to the back
- yellowish skin
- fatigue, general malaise
These signs and symptoms can also be associated with other less serious conditions. If you are inconvenienced by some of them or worried, speak to a healthcare professional.
Different treatments can be considered to fight pancreatic cancer. When it is detected early, treatment aims to heal, in other cases, it 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). The choice of therapy largely depends on the patient’s general health as well as the site and stage of the cancer.
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 with your treatment.
Ask your pharmacist for advice before using any over-the-counter medications or natural health products. They will ensure that it is compatible with your cancer treatment and that it does not interfere with its effectiveness or safety.
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 in this regard. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice concerning your treatment. By being well-informed and getting the best support possible, you will be better equipped to cope with this ordeal!