The cancer up close
PRIME MINISTER David Thompson has been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas, says his personal physician Dr Richard Ishmael.
But what exactly is this cancer and how important is the pancreas to one’s day-to-day life?
What is the pancreas and what does it do?
The pancreas is a six- to ten-inch-long organ located deep in the abdomen, behind the stomach. It is spongy and shaped somewhat like a fish, extended horizontally across the abdomen.
The head of the pancreas is on the right side of the abdomen where the stomach is attached to the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum). The tail of the pancreas extends to the left side of the abdomen next to the spleen.
It is part of the digestive system and produces important enzymes and hormones that help break down foods.
The pancreas has an endocrine function because it releases juices directly into the bloodstream, and it has an exocrine function because it releases juices into ducts.
Enzymes, or digestive juices, produced by the pancreas are secreted into the small intestine to further break down food after it has left the stomach.
The gland also produces the hormone insulin and secretes it into the bloodstream in order to regulate the body’s glucose or sugar level.
When these hormones are not working properly, the result is often diabetes.
Causes and symptoms of cancer of the pancreas
It is difficult for physicians to diagnose the exact cause of pancreatic cancer, but it is often linked to smoking or heavy drinking. Even smokeless tobacco has been noted as a risk factor.
Other risk factors include diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, liver problems, and stomach infections.
Pancreatic cancer is also more common in men than women and among African Americans than among Whites.
Diet and obesity have also been linked to cancers of the pancreas. People who do not exercise much and who are obese are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
In addition, those who eat diets low in vegetables and fruits and high in red meat and fat are more likely to be diagnosed with the disease. Alcohol consumption is also considered a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
Long-term, heavy drinking leads to chronic pancreatitis, which is a known risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may not appear until the cancer is in advanced stages – often too late for successful treatment.
The condition often presents:
• pain in the upper abdomen from the tumour pushing against nerves
• jaundice – a painless yellowing of the skin and eyes and darkening of the urine, created when the cancer interferes with the bile duct and the liver
• loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting
• significant weight loss and weakness
• pale or grey stool and excess fat in stool (steatorrhoea stool)
Treating pancreatic cancer is difficult, and the prognosis tends to be poor. Patients usually receive surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of treatments.
Prime Minister Thompson is primarily receiving chemotherapy – the taking of medication orally and intraveneously.
The advantages of this treatment are that it should reduce the size of the tumour (especially when surgery is contemplated) and prevent or kill any cancer cells that may have spread. (SP