by Kimberly Allen, RN
When I started working in home health, my first “terminal” patient was a 56-year-old man with pancreatic cancer. He was sent home with one of the first infusion pumps widely used to administer morphine for pain management. He was weak and also required a hospital bed downstairs as all the bedrooms were upstairs and he was too weak to use the stairs. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer approximately 4 months earlier. Approximately 44,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year, that’s like 1 in 76 people in the US that develop this type of cancer. Though it can occur at any age it is more frequently diagnosed in people between 50-80 years of age with over 60% being over 70 years of age. Pancreatic cancer also tends to affect men more than women and African American more than Caucasians. Pancreatic cancer may not be one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers but it is the 4th deadliest with approximately 37,000 deaths every year in the US.
The pancreas is located in your upper abdomen just under your stomach. It is an organ that is part of the endocrine system, most people know the pancreas because it sevretes the hormone insulin, however, it has many other functions too. Most of these functions are glandular and can be divided into 2 categories, endocrine and exocrine. The exocrine glands are responsible for secreting the enzymes that assist with digestion. The endocrine glands include the islets of Langerhan that secrete insulin to assist in the breakdown of sugars as well as controlling blood sugar levels. The most common type of pancreatic cancer coccurs in the exocrine glands and is called adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinomas account for 95% of all pancreatic cancers while the other 5% occur in the endocrine glands and are known as neuroendocrine tumors. Pancreatic cancer develops when the DNA in the cells of your pancreas become mutated. Once the cells have mutated they multiply rapidly and uncontrollably. The mutated cells also do not die off when a normal cell would, they continue living and multiplying. There are also certain factors that increase your chances of developing pancreatic cancer including obesity and diabetes as well as pancreatitis. People with a family history of pancreatic cancer as well as other diseases like Lynch syndrome also have a greater chance of developing the disease than those with no history. And people that smoke have double the chance of developing pancreatic cancer as non-smokers. So there’s another reason to quit.
One of the reason’s pancreatic cancer is so deadly is that by the time you notice any symptoms the cancer has already spread and is difficult to treat. When symptoms do manifest in adenocarcinoma the type of symptoms you have will depends on the location of the tumor/cancer. If your cancer is in the portion of the pancreas known as the head you’ll experience jaundice, dark urine and pale stools, as well as nausea and vomiting, itching, abdominal and back pain. Weight loss is experienced in all types of pancreatic cancer.
Treatment of pancreatic cancer depends on a variety of factors including the stage and location of your cancer. The Dr will also consider your age and overall health as well as your own personal preferences. The primary goal of treatment is eliminating the cancer. If that isn’t a viable option the Dr may choose to concentrate on preventing the disease form spreading and causing more damage.
While there is currently no proven way to prevent pancreatic cancer there are some steps you can take to reduce your chances of developing the disease. One of the first things you should do is quit somiking if you smoke. Maintaining a healthy weight, if you are over weight it’s important to try to lose weight. Eating a healthy diet low in fats and high in freah fruits and vegetables along with whole grains and lean meats as well as regular exercise can also significantly reduce your risk of not only pancreatic cancer but other diseases as well.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.