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Here are frequently asked questions about pancreatic cancer. 


What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen that aids digestion by making hormones that control blood sugar levels and enzymes. Pancreatic cancer happens when cells in the pancreas mutate and multiply, which forms a tumor. 

Pancreatic cancer accounts for approximately 3% of all cancers and 8% of cancer deaths in the United States. It is the tenth most common cancer in men and the eighth most common cancer in women.

There are two types of pancreatic cancer:

  • Exocrine pancreatic cancer is the most common type that begins in the ducts carrying pancreatic juices.
  • Endocrine pancreatic (or Islet Cell) cancer starts in the pancreas cells that make hormones.

What are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect at early stages. Symptoms typically emerge when a tumor starts impacting other organs in the digestive system. Pancreatic cancer symptoms may include:

  • Blood clots
  • Dark urine
  • Fatigue
  • Gas or bloating
  • Itchy skin
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin)
  • Lack of appetite
  • Light-colored stool
  • Middle back pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • New-onset diabetes
  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Weight loss

What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Exposure to certain chemicals (pesticides and petrochemicals)
  • Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of your pancreas)
  • Hereditary chronic pancreatitis 
  • Hereditary syndromes with gene mutations passed from a biological parent to a child.
  • Hereditary syndromes with gene mutations, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, passed from biological parent to child.

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect at early stages. A single test does not exist for screening. Your doctor may recommend the following if you have certain risk factors or are showing signs and symptoms.

  • Blood test to measure the level of CA-19-9 proteins, a protein released by pancreatic cancer cells.
  • Imaging tests, including PET scan, endoscopic ultrasound and MRI.
  • Genetic consultation and testing.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

  • Surgery. A surgical procedure removes a tumor from the pancreas or the entire pancreas and other tissues, lymph nodes or other affected organs.
  • Radiation therapy. High-energy radiation targets and eliminates cancer cells.
  • Medical therapy. Options include chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

Find care at Catholic Health

Call 866-MY-LI-DOC (866-695-4362) to find a Catholic Health physician near you.

Catholic Health Cancer Institutes in Nassau and Suffolk counties offer care close to home. Learn more about our pancreatic cancer services.

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