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Do you know where your pancreas is located and what it does? No, it's not a London train station but a functioning body part, and like all body parts it can go wrong.
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month so roll up those sleeves for some intensive learning that may save your life.
The pancreas is a small organ deep inside the body. It's in front of your spine, behind your stomach. It looks like a tadpole lying down - albeit six inches in length. Its job is to make enzymes that digest food, and produce hormones like insulin to manage blood sugar.
There are two types of pancreatic cancer:
- Exocrine tumours are the most common form, comprising about 90% of pancreatic cancers. It refers to a growth in body cells that line the pancreas' ducts.
- Endocrine tumours grow from hormone-producing cells. They then produce their own hormones, which can lead to serious illness.
Symptoms can be vague, non-specific and diagnosed as something other than cancer in the early stages. Some people have no idea they are seriously ill until the cancer is widespread.
Possible symptoms include:
Pancreatic is one of the rarest forms of cancer, with 9000 people diagnosed in the UK each year. Survival rates are incredibly low, with 5-year survival having remained at around 4% for nearly 40 years. Experts say this is because there are few symptoms, so patients are often diagnosed late. By comparison, breast cancer has a survival rate of around 80%.
The causes are not known but there are risk factors:
Smoking: In 2011 a study estimated that 29% of pancreatic cancer cases were related to smoking. It's the only confirmed environmental factor.
Age: Older people are more likely to be diagnosed with this cancer. Almost all patients are aged 45 or over, with two-thirds aged over 65.
Chronic Pancreatitis: This is a long-term illness that inflames the pancreas. It may eventually cause enough damage that it can lead to cancer.
Diabetes: Some recent studies indicate that diabetes is a risk for pancreatic cancer because the pancreas regulates blood sugar.
Obesity: Women with excess stomach fat are at more risk. Fat produces hormones, which can affect the pancreas and increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. In 2011 a study revealed that 12% of pancreatic cancer cases were due to obesity.
There's no cure yet but pancreatic cancer can be treated with surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
The condition can be painful. Enzyme replacement can help manage pain levels and help the body absorb the nutrients that a damaged or missing pancreas can't deal with. Without enzyme replacement some patients will eventually become malnourished.
Researchers from Ulster University have found a new potential treatment for pancreatic cancer. They found that oxygen micro-bubbles coated in a drug could be injected into tumours and activated by ultrasound. Pancreatic surgeon Mark Taylor believes that this local treatment may allow surgeons to operate and increase survival chances five-fold.
If you have vague persistent symptoms, such as losing weight, feeling depressed or back pain, it's worth a trip to discuss it with your doctor. Don't wait until it gets worse, because as we've seen, that may be too late.
Images taken from Pancreatic Cancer UK.