Understanding Pancreatic Cancer
What is the Pancreas?
The pancreas is a gland about 6 inches long that is shaped like a thin pear lying on its side. The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine.
The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:
· To produce juices that help digest (break down) food.
· To produce hormones such as insulin and glucason, that help control blood sugar levels. Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.
The digestive juices are produced by exocrine pancreas cells. The digestive portion of the pancreas makes up more than 90 percent of its total cell mass. The digestive or exocrine pancreas is responsible for making digestive enzymes which are secreted into the intestines to help digest (break down) the food we eat. These enzymes digest proteins, fats, and carbohydrates into much smaller molecules so our intestines can absorb them. About 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells. The hormones, insulin and glucason are produced by endocrine pancreas cells. Approximately 5 percent of the total pancreatic mass is comprised of endocrine cells. These endocrine cells are clustered in groups within the pancreas which look like little islands of cells when examined under a microscope. Like all endocrine glands, they secrete their hormones into the bloodstream and not into tubes or ducts like the digestive pancreas. The endocrine cells produce the hormones which are secreted into the blood stream where they gain access to other cells very far away with the goal of making those cells respond in a specific fashion. The most common hormone produced by the endocrine cells is insulin which regulates blood sugar levels.
Healthy cells grow and divide in an orderly way. This process is controlled by DNA — the genetic material that contains the instructions for every chemical process in your body. When DNA is damaged, changes occur in these instructions. One result is that cells may begin to grow out of control and eventually form a tumor — a mass of malignant cells. No one knows exactly what damages DNA in the vast majority of cases of pancreatic cancer. But it is known that a small percentage of people develop the disease as a result of a genetic predisposition. That is, people who have a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, with pancreatic cancer have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer themselves. In addition, a number of genetic diseases have been associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, including familial adenomatous polyposis, nonpolyposis colon cancer, familial breast cancer associated with the BRCA2 gene, hereditary pancreatitis, and familial atypical multiple mole-melanoma syndrome a serious type of skin cancer. This means that people who have a hereditary predisposition to develop these cancers are also more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Less than 10 percent of pancreatic cancers result from an inherited tendency. A greater number are caused by environmental or lifestyle factors.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most serious of all cancers. Although pancreatic cancer accounts for just 2 percent of new cancer cases in the United States, it's the fourth leading cause of all cancer deaths. That's because pancreatic cancer spreads rapidly and is seldom detected in its early stages. It is difficult to diagnose and detect in the early stages because of the location of the pancreas in the body, behind other organs, and most symptoms do not appear until the cancer has already spread. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are also notably symptoms of many less serious diseases.
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