How to recognize and treat pancreatic cancer

This year, thousands of people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While it might not be the most common cancer out there, it is one of the most deadly, and cancer patients will need courage and a sound medical team to help them through it.

Thankfully, experts are still committed to furthering their research on this tough cancer.

Last year, a medical team from the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust decided to analyze the most common treatment for pancreatic cancer: surgery. Their goal was simple.

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Lead researcher Keith Roberts and his team worked with several UK hospitals to speed up the time between the cancer’s diagnosis and its necessary surgery. Because pancreatic cancer is so dangerous, the researchers hope to improve survival rates by acting quickly.

During the trial, the researchers focused on speeding up the process for 32 patients, whittling down the waiting period from two months to two weeks. In doing so, they bypassed a procedure for jaundiced patients that supposedly reduces the risk of post-surgery complications, according to BBC News.

Despite overlooking this precaution, doctors were able to successfully remove the tumors from 31 out of the 32 patients. While the researchers are encouraged by these results, they will have to wait several years to see if their quick action will have any long-term effects.

Recognizing Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer happens when cells in your pancreas cause DNA mutations. While normal cells might die from natural body defenses or common treatment, these mutations can cause the cells to keep living and growing. Eventually, a tumor will form, often causing complications to the bowels and digestive system.  

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According to the American Cancer Society, over 50,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. Of these, a little over 40,000 will die from it.

Why aren’t more people surviving this cancer? In many cases, patients are diagnosed at a late stage when the cancer has already spread. For this reason, it’s especially important to identify any changes in your body early on and talk them over with your doctor.

Here are a few signs to watch for:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to the back
  • New case of diabetes
  • Blood clots
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)

Unfortunately, obvious symptoms don’t always occur in the beginning stages of the cancer. Overall, pancreatic cancer has a rare incidence rate, but you may have an increased risk with certain factors.

These risk factors include a family history of pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis, diabetes, smoking, obesity and old age. In any of these cases, you may want to consider screening as a precaution.

Getting Treatment

If you’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you will need to talk through your options with your doctor. Based on the new research, you may improve your condition by opting for surgery as quickly as possible. However, treatment will vary based on your age, overall health, and the progression of the cancer.

  1. Surgery

If you’re opting for surgery, you should understand the road ahead. Depending on how big the cancer is, your doctor may only need to remove the tumor itself.

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If the cancer has grown significantly or spread, you may need a bypass surgery or partial removal of the pancreas. While these procedures are invasive, surgery may give you the best chance of curing the cancer.

2. The Whipple Procedure

This procedure is actually another surgery used on eligible patients. In this treatment, the surgeon will actually remove the head of the pancreas and may also remove other affected areas nearby. Then, the surgeon will re-attach the remaining portions to allow for normal digestion.

3. Chemotherapy/Radiation

Again, the type of chemotherapy used will depend on the location and size of the cancer. Often, doctors will use this treatment to shrink the tumor before surgery. If the cancer has only spread to one or two surrounding organs, he may use radiation or a combination of the treatments.

While pancreatic cancer does prove difficult to cure, medical experts are actively researching new treatments. At best, you should talk with your doctor about speeding up the time between your diagnosis and your treatment. Then, stay dedicated to your treatment and health, taking care of yourself both mentally and physically along the way.

This article first appeared on AskDrManny.com.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.