1. What is the pancreas and pancreatic cancer? The pancreas is a gland located deep in the abdomen.  It is surrounded by the stomach, small intestine, liver and spleen. The pancreas has two main functions.  One function is called the exocrine function.  This involves the production of enzymes that help in digestion.  The second function of the pancreas is the endocrine function, which involves the production of hormones, including insulin and glucagon.  Islet cells within the pancreas produce and secrete insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream.  These hormones work together to maintain the proper level of sugar in the blood. When cells in the pancreas grow out of control, a tumor develops.  In most cases of pancreatic cancer, the cells that line the pancreatic duct are involved.  This type of pancreatic cancer is an exocrine tumor known as adenocarcinoma.  A less common type of pancreatic tumor begins in the islet cells of the pancreas and is known as an endocrine or islet cell tumor.
2. What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer? The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are vague and may include back or abdominal pain, digestive issues or unexplained weight loss. These symptoms may also indicate a number of other conditions. The symptom that often triggers a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin and eyes. Jaundice is caused by the buildup of a substance called bilirubin in the blood.  In the case of pancreatic cancer, jaundice may occur if a tumor on the head of the pancreas obstructs the bile duct, causing this buildup of bilirubin.
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3. Who is at risk? Recent research studies indicate that 30 percent of pancreatic cancer cases are linked to smoking and another 10 percent are said to have a hereditary (or familial) link. We also know that the incidence among African Americans is 50-90 percent higher than any other ethnic group in the United States. And, there is an even greater risk of pancreatic cancer among Ashkenazi Jews.  Some of the other risk factors scientists are currently studying include: diabetes, chronic and hereditary pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), obesity, physical activity, and diet.
4. What treatment options are available? The standard treatments for pancreatic cancer include chemotherapy and/or radiation. Some patients may be eligible for a surgery called the Whipple procedure, where part of the pancreas is removed. Other methods of treatment can include biological therapies, and/or complementary and alternative therapies. Clinical trials in pancreatic cancer are also available and should be considered when selecting a treatment option. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has a comprehensive and up-to-date database of pancreatic cancer clinical trials throughout the country and can perform personalized clinical trials searches for patients.
5. There is hope for pancreatic cancer patients. Receiving the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer can be a frightening moment for both the patient and the family. It is important to realize that there is hope and resources available to help them through their journey. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s Patient and Liaison Services (PALS) program provides patients and their families with the most current information on the disease, from treatment options and clinical trials, to diet and nutrition information, and symptom management. And, our Survivor and Caregiver Network puts patients and their families in touch with people who can share their experiences, and offer support and inspiration. All of our services and materials are free of charge.

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