What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer develops within the pancreas, an organ located deep in the abdomen, behind the stomach and close to the spine. The pancreas plays two distinct roles in the body—one within the digestive system and one within the hormonal system. In its digestive role, the pancreas creates enzymes that break down fats and proteins--converting food into fuel. In its hormonal role, the pancreas produces hormones that regulate blood sugar.
Not surprisingly, the pancreas cells that perform these two functions differ significantly from each other. Those cells that create enzymes are exocrine cells while those cells that create hormones are endocrine cells. Just as there are two distinct types of cells within the pancreas, so there are two distinct types of pancreatic cancer. Most pancreatic cancers start in the exocrine cells, and the vast majority of these cancers are adenocarcinomas. Rarely, cancer forms in the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas; this type of cancer is known as pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer and accounts for fewer than 5% of all cancerous tumors of the pancreas. These two types of cancer have different diagnostic tests, treatment patterns and disease trajectories.
Because of the location of the pancreas deep in the body just in front of the spine, most patients do not develop symptoms of pancreatic cancer until the disease is advanced. Even then, symptoms may be non-specific, and may include:
- Pain in the abdomen or back
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Jaundice (yellow-colored skin and eyes)
- Dark urine
- Light-colored or greasy stools
- Itchy skin
Everyone’s cancer is different, which is why our treatment plans always begin with a comprehensive diagnosis. Following diagnosis, our multidisciplinary team, led by UW Physicians, offers personalized treatment plans based on the type, stage and genetic makeup of your cancer, as well as potential side effects, treatment goals and other factors unique to you.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends upon your tumor’s stage of growth. Surgery is an option for treatment if there is no evidence of your tumor having spread through the pancreas into the adjacent organs (metastasis). Some patients with confined small tumors may receive a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
The UW Medicine pancreatic cancer team consists of nationally recognized healthcare professionals with extensive clinical knowledge and surgical expertise. Our specialists have access to the latest research and development in cancer treatment, including clinical trials, so you may have the opportunity to benefit from new treatments for your specific type of cancer. We also screen for pre-cancerous changes in the pancreas in individuals who come from families that appear to inherit the disease, as we are dedicated to developing more accurate methods of early diagnosis.
Our mission is to provide a center of excellence for clinical care and research advances for patients and their families with pancreatic cancer through a state-of-the-art, interdisciplinary approach to the diagnosis, treatment, research and prevention of pancreatic cancer.
Where You Will Be Seen
The outpatient clinic is located at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), while our physicians perform surgical procedures at UW Medical Center (UWMC). If your treatment plan calls for radiation therapy, you will be seen at the SCCA outpatient clinic, while chemotherapy can be administered at either UWMC or SCCA.
If you have already been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you may also self-refer by calling the SCCA's Patient Intake Office at 206.288.SCCA (7222).
Purple Stride is an annual walk to raise awareness and funds for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PCAN) that takes place on October 30 this year. PCAN is dedicated to working together to advance research for pancreatic cancer and support patients affected by it.