What You'll Learn Here:
~ by Jo Jordan
We were all saddened to learn that Steve Jobs passed away on October 5, 2011. Steve – co-founder of Apple – had cancer. Along with the 33,000 other Americans who are diagnosed every year with the disease, Steve was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003.
The Mayo Clinic calls pancreatic cancer “one of the most serious of cancers”1 because of the rapidity with which it spreads. Pancreatic cancer is rarely detected in its early stages and, as a result, is a leading cause of cancer death.
Because the pancreas is a storage depot for digestive enzymes, anything compromising to this organ is potentially very dangerous.
Is there anything you can do in order to decrease the likelihood of developing this life-threatening disease? Yes. There is a great deal you can do. Let’s start with a look at the signs and symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often do not appear until the disease is quite advanced. Most symptoms are non-specific and varied, and may often as not be caused by other conditions. Early diagnosis is crucial, so it’s important to consult your health care provider if any of the following symptoms persist:
- Appetite loss
- Change in urine and/or stool color (urine may turn orange or reddish brown; stool may turn yellow, reddish, or become gray or chalky-white)
- Clinical depression has been reported in association with pancreatic cancer, though the associated mechanism is unknown
- Diarrhea (less common)
- Digestive problems
- Indigestion (especially with fatty foods)
- Nausea and vomiting (in advanced cases)
- Pain (dull, fairly constant, mostly localized to the middle and upper back, and the upper abdomen; upper abdominal pain may radiate to middle or upper back; worse after eating or when lying down)
- Sudden-onset diabetes or a sudden change in blood-sugar control in diabetics
- Trousseau sign is sometimes associated with pancreatic cancer. This symptom involves the spontaneous formation of blood clots in portal the blood vessels, deep veins of the extremities, or in superficial veins throughout the body.
- Unintentional weight loss
- Yellowing of the skin and eye whites (jaundice)
Next, a little bit of background on the pancreas, its functions, and how cancer can develop.
What Does the Pancreas Do?
Part of the digestive system, the pancreas – about six inches long – is located near the middle of the abdomen, beside the upper part of the small intestine. It performs two functions vital to sustaining life: it produces the digestive juices and enzymes that aid in the break down of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats; and it secretes insulin and glucagon, hormones that regulate the metabolization of sugar.
What Is Pancreatic Cancer?
Simply put, pancreatic cancer is a malignant tumor of the pancreas caused by changes in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is responsible for cell production; it ensures that cells grow and divide in an orderly fashion. When DNA is damaged, pancreatic tissue cells become unhealthy, begin to grow uncontrollably, and can develop into malignant (cancerous) tumors.
There are many types of pancreatic cancer. Ninety-five percent of all malignancies of the pancreas are adenocarcinomas (exocrine, i.e. affect glands that use ducts for secreting molecules), which develop in the glandular lining where the production of digestive enzymes takes place.
Though less common, cancer can also occur in the islet cells. Known as islet cell carcinoma (neuroendocrine or endocrine, i.e. affects glands that secrete hormones circulated in the bloodstream), this type of cancer develops in the clusters of pancreatic cells that produce insulin and other hormones.
There are very rare lymphomas (cancer that originates in the immune system) and sarcomas (cancer growing from connective tissues) of the pancreas, as well as pancreaticoblastoma (also known as infantile pancreatic carcinoma). This rare malignant tumor occurs equally in girls and boys between one and eight years of age.
Cancer prevents pancreatic enzymes from being released into the intestine, making it difficult to digest foods. This is a serious problem that can lead to maldigestion and malabsorption of nutrients, as well as a myriad of other health problems such as weight loss and jaundice.
Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
Ten percent of pancreatic cancers result from an inherited tendency; a greater number are believed to be caused by environmental or lifestyle factors such as smoking, high fat diets, and chemical exposure.2
While the exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, there are certain associated indicators that increase the likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer:
- Age – Pancreatic cancer occurs most often in men and women over the age of sixty-five. It can, however, strike at any age.
- Cigarette Smoking – Estimates suggest that in thirty percent of pancreatic cancer cases cigarette smoking is believed to be the cause.
- Diet – Although there is some disagreement on this point, some studies indicate that a high-fat diet may increase the risk.
- Eating grilled or charred meats also puts consumers at high risk for developing pancreatic cancer. High temperature cooking breaks down the amino acid in meats, and forms the chemical heterocyclic amines (HAs), which is a carcinogenic.3
- Family History – A family history of colorectal and pancreatic cancer, as well as melanoma, can signify an increased risk for pancreatic cancer. Adenomatous polyposis (polyps) and hereditary pancreatitis are also believed to be indicators.
- Gender – More men than women develop pancreatic cancer.
- Gingivitis or periodontal disease
- Obesity – Study results are not absolute, but there is a potential link between pancreatic cancer and obesity.
- Race – Those of African ethnicity are considered at a higher risk for developing the disease than other groups.
- Workplace exposure – Certain chemicals used in manufacturing may be associated with increased risk, including 2-naphthylamine, benzidine, and gasoline derivatives. Exposure to DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) and related chemicals may also be a risk factor.
Additionally, certain other hereditary illnesses – some rare – are associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer:
- Deficiency in carcinogen metabolism and DNA repair
- Diabetes mellitus
- Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (skin cancer)
- Familial breast cancer
- Gastrectomy (surgical removal of the stomach)
- Hereditary and/or chronic pancreatitis
- Helicobacter pylori infection (bacterial infection)
- Lynch syndrome II (hereditary colorectal cancer)
- Multiple endocrine neoplasia type I (islet cell tumors)
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
- Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome (islet cell tumors)
Pancreatic Cancer Preventatives
While it is not always possible to ward off diseases – especially those associated with genetic indicators – there are various lifestyle changes you can implement in order to decrease the potential for developing pancreatic cancer.
A high-fiber diet may help to decrease the risk, as does regular exercise, and maintaining your optimum weight. Avoiding toxic work environments is a critical preventative since exposure to certain chemicals is associated with pancreatic cancer.
There are many other things you can do to cut the risk…
Whether or not you are at risk for developing pancreatic cancer, cleansing your body of wastes and toxins is vital to optimal health. Consider the fact that petroleum products – ranging from fertilizers to deodorants – are one of the most prevalent toxins in our environment.
This type of chemical acts as a xenoestrogen (synthetic estrogen), blocking liver function, attaching itself to normal estrogen receptors, and interfering with sexual hormone functioning. These toxins work to weaken the neuroendocrine system – where certain pancreatic cancers develop – wreaking havoc on the glands that secrete hormones into our bloodstream.4
Because of the ubiquitous nature of toxins in the twenty-first century, a liver and colon cleansing detoxification program is a beneficial addition to any health regimen. Together, these programs can clear out many of the toxins we ingest on a daily basis, working as a simple preventative against the onset of diseases such as pancreatic cancer.
If you are a smoker, it’s crucial to pack it in! Smoking is one of the greatest known risk factors for pancreatic cancer. The carcinogens in cigarettes can be damaging to cell-growth regulating DNA. In fact, people who smoke cigarettes are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers.5
Take Your Vitamins
In September 2006, the Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention journal reported the results of a long-term study led by Dr. Halcyon Skinner at Northwestern University in Illinois. The outcome of the study indicates that taking the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin D (400 IU per day) may substantially cut the risk of pancreatic cancer.6
Other studies indicate that B vitamins such as B12, B6, and folate, can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer when consumed in food, but not when ingested in vitamin tablet form.7
An article in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Consumer magazine outlines the current research being conducted for a vaccine to fight pancreatic cancer. While the research is not yet complete, the results are promising.8
Conventional Treatment Options
Traditional pancreatic cancer treatment includes the surgical removal of tumors. The Whipple procedure is the most common surgical treatment for cancers involving the head of the pancreas (located near the center of the abdomen, next to the upper part of the small intestine). This surgery is only possible, however, in cases where the cancer has not spread to other organs, lymph nodes, or blood vessels.
A distal pancreatectomy is performed primarily to treat islet cell cancers. As such, only the tail (located on the left side, next to the spleen) — or the tail and a tiny portion of the body of the pancreas — is removed. In some cases, the spleen may require removal.
A total pancreatectomy involves the removal of the entire pancreas, the bile duct, gallbladder, spleen, part of the small intestine and stomach, and the majority of lymph nodes in the area. The operation presents serious risks, involves lifelong insulin injections and pancreatic enzymes, and is performed judiciously.
Radiation treatments – which use high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells – are given before or after cancer surgery, often in conjunction with chemotherapy. Sometimes a combination of radiation and chemotherapy treatments are administered when pancreatic cancer can’t be treated surgically.
Fluorouracil, gemcitabine, and erlotinib are the chemotherapeutic drug agents of choice. Injected into a vein or taken orally, these drugs – used to treat cancers that have spread – travel throughout the bloodstream.
Alternative Thinking – Alternative Treatments
In 1998, the National Institutes of Health established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and is currently conducting trials to determine the effect of alternative treatments for pancreatic cancer. The NCCAM and the National Cancer Institute endeavor to better understand the role complementary and alternative medicine can play in cancer treatment.
For example, pancreatic enzyme therapy, as well as herbal treatments such as the effectiveness of combining gemcitabine with mistletoe9 in treating patients who have advanced solid tumors, are being examined.
Alternative and complementary treatments for pancreatic cancer tend to focus on the whole person rather than just the disease — that is, they minister to the mind and spirit, as well as the body, and can help to alleviate the side effects of conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, reduce stress, and improve a survivor’s overall quality of life.
For more information on Alternative Thinking, Alternative Treatments, read A Surgeon’s Perspective on Alternative Cancer Treatment, from Dr. Yehuda Ben-Asher’s story.