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Why Is Pancreatic Cancer So Deadly?

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer. Compared to cancers of other organs of the digestive system , the results of pancreatic cancers are poorer. There are 3 important reasons for it.

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2 min read

Dr. Praveen Kammar


Consultant Surgical Oncologist

1. Delayed Diagnosis :

The pancreas is situated very deep inside the abdomen. It practically sits over the backbone (vertebral column) separated from it by just the aorta (the large blood vessel coming from the heart into the abdomen).

The stomach and large intestine lie directly over it. Due to its situation, it’s not easy to identify pancreatic cancer in early stages with common tests like ultrasonography or blood work.

One of the main challenges in treating pancreatic cancer is that it often has no early warning signs or symptoms. The tumours can grow undetected for months before they become detectable and are thus more likely to have spread before diagnosis.

This makes it difficult for physicians to diagnose cancer at its earliest stage when treatment would be most successful.

A curative surgery offers the best chance against pancreatic cancer. However, Only 15% of pancreatic cancers are operable at the time of diagnosis.

Also watch, Why prevention is the best treatment for Pancreatic Cancer 

2. Technical Complexity Due to the Location :

As discussed earlier, pancreatic cancers are located very deep in the abdomen. Two major blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood to the abdominal organs are located in close association with the pancreas.

These are the celiac axis and superior mesenteric artery. The blood vessels that carry blood from the intestines, containing the digested nutrients, towards the liver are also in close relation to the pancreas.

These are the portal vein and superior mesenteric vein. Due to such close proximity to such vital vessels, there is a high risk of pancreatic cancers spreading to these vessels and rendering them inoperable.

Due to the same reasons, pancreatic surgery becomes technically complex and also carries significant side effects.

Another reason why pancreatic cancer is so deadly is because radiation, chemotherapy and other forms of systemic treatments are not highly effective against this form of cancer. For many patients, surgery may be their only chance at survival since chemotherapy alone cannot achieve long-term remission.

3. Aggressive Nature of Pancreatic Cancer :

Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas is the most common type of pancreatic cancer. This particular type of cancer has a tendency to stick to the nerves present around the blood vessels lying close to the pancreas and spread along them.

They also show a tendency to quickly spread to other distant organs. Hence the chances of diagnosing them at early stages are limited.

Warning signs of Pancreatic Cancer

These includes:

  1. Yellowing of whites of the eyes and skin i.e. Jaundice,
  2. Pain in the upper abdomen or back,
  3. Unexplained weight loss,
  4. Poor or reduced appetite,
  5. Dark urine,
  6. Light-coloured i.e. pale stools,
  7. Nausea/vomiting and new-onset diabetes.

If you experience any of these symptoms please contact your physician immediately.

Despite its reputation as deadly cancer, there is hope for patients with pancreatic cancer. With improved diagnostic tools such as endoscopic ultrasounds, MRIs and CT scan it is becoming easier to diagnose earlier stages of pancreatic cancer when treatments are more likely to be successful.

Additionally, research into immunotherapy drugs has shown promise in treating pancreatic tumours where chemotherapy has failed in the past.

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