Generally, cancer is a disease that can affect most of the cells in our body. Pancreatic cancer manifests when the pancreatic cells begin to divide uncontrollably. It equally affects men and women and can manifest during any life stage.
The pancreas is an elongated organ that lies behind the stomach that carries out many important bodily functions. The pancreas is made up of two types of cells:
- Endocrine cells: These are usually in the pancreatic islets. Essentially, they produce hormones that they directly release into the bloodstream. They normally produce insulin and glucagon. These are able to regulate the amount of glucose in the bloodstream.
- Exocrine cells: On the other hand, these synthesize enzymes that travel to the duodenum through tiny ducts. They form the pancreatic duct. This attaches to the bile duct (that comes from the liver) toward the small intestine. The enzymes they make aid in the digestion of certain nutrients such as lipids or fats.
What Are the Types of Pancreatic Cancer?
Overall, there are two types of pancreatic cancer, depending on the type of cells that they affect:
- Exocrine pancreatic cancer: This is the one that manifests most frequently. In most cases, it develops in the cells that produce digestive enzymes.
- Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (malignant or cancerous): These affect the pancreatic islet cells that produce hormones. Thus, they release them directly into the bloodstream.
In addition, we can differentiate between the different subtypes depending on the type of cell the cancer affects (see the most common symptoms).
What Are the Most Common Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?
Some people may not show any signs of the disease. Furthermore, the symptoms may vary depending on the type of pancreatic cancer the patient is suffering from. Thus, we can distinguish between:
Exocrine pancreatic cancer
- Tiredness, fatigue, or general weakness.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Loss of appetite. This often leads to undesired weight loss.
- Increase in the size of the gallbladder and/or liver.
- Abdominal discomfort that may spread to nearby areas (such as the back).
- Jaundice or yellowing of the skin. This is because the cancer blocks the common bile duct and bilirubin builds up. Bilirubin is a pigment produced by the liver that normally reaches the duodenum through this duct. Other related symptoms are darker urine and changes in stool characteristics (changes in its hue and texture).
Here are some of its hormonal symptoms:
- Changes in the texture of the patient’s fatty tissue. This is caused by the incorrect release of pancreatic enzymes.
- Diabetes: In this case, the exocrine cells destroy the cells that synthesize insulin. Therefore, blood glucose levels rise and the characteristic symptoms of this disease manifest.
- Slight blood glucose levels alterations.
Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (malignant or cancerous): Depending on the type of cell that developed the cancer:
- Gastrinoma: The disease manifests in the cells that produce gastrin and increases its production. Generally, this substance helps synthesize more acid in the stomach. This condition is known by the name Zollinger-Ellison syndrome.
- Insulinoma: It affects the cells that produce insulin, which divide uncontrollably. It causes hypoglycemia or low blood glucose levels.
- Glucagonoma: A rare tumor that develops in the cells that produce glucagon. It causes hyperglycemia or elevated blood glucose levels.
- Somatostatinoma: Somatostatin normally helps regulate other hormones. This tumor can alter the levels of this substance.
- PPoma: It’s associated with an overproduction of pancreatic polypeptide (PP) which regulates the functions of the pancreas under normal conditions.
- VIPoma: It alters the cells that synthesize vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP). The most notable symptom is prolonged diarrhea.