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What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Written By Tony Subia
All organs in the body are comprised of normal, functioning cells. This includes the pancreas which actually is a gland and not officially an organ. Over periods of time cells divide to create new cells when the body needs them. When normal functioning older cells die they are secreted through regular body elimination systems and new younger cells take their place and perform their roles.
Normal cell replacements can divide excessively even when when the body does not need them while at the same time older cells do not die You might call it “over replication” where extra excess cells form together to create a mass which is a tumor.
It is important to note that tumors can be “benign” (non-cancerous) or “malignant”(cancerous). Some benign
tumors are often referred to as “cysts”.
Since cells are microscopically small it can take many years for replicated cancer cells to form a tumor that is of sufficient size to cause impressive, noticeable symptoms. Because the pancreas is located deep in the abdomen sandwiched between the stomach and the spine, tumors can be difficult to be felt during a physician’s routine surface examination.
Difference Between A Benign and Malignant Tumor
A malignant tumor is cancer. A benign tumor is not cancer. Although benign pancreas tumors generally reach a point when they stop growing, they can cause serious medical problems by creating pressure on surrounding tissue, major blood vessels, nerve networks, and nearby organs. They can cause malfunctions, discomfort, and severe pain. Surgical removal may be warranted.
A malignant tumor continues to grow as its collected cells replicate. Cancer cells can break away from its tumor and spread to surrounding tissue and even to distant organs such as the lungs and liver. When cancerous cell spreads beyond the pancreas to other organs it is considered “metastasized” to other locations.
The pancreas is a gland and not considered an organ. When and if pancreatic cancer spreads to distant organs, it is still considered pancreas cancer. For example, if it spreads to the liver, it is considered “metastatic pancreatic cancer” and not liver cancer. Cancerous cells spread through the blood and/or lymph node systems.
Types of Pancreatic Cancer
The pancreas has a dual role. Its “Exocrine Function” creates digestive enzymes as a part of the body’s digestive system. Its “Endocirne Function” produces hormones, primarily “insulin” which controls blood sugar levels. The respective cells in those function areas can become cancerous.
About 95% of pancreas cancer occurs in the Exocrine Function and is called “pancreatic adenocarcinoma” or “pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma cancer” sometimes abbreviated as “PDAC”. It arises in the pancreatic duct and is considered the most aggressive and worst of pancreatic cancers. In fact, it has the lowest average 5-year survival rate of all cancers at about 9.3%. (2019) according to the National Institute of Health.
About 5% of pancreatic cancer occurs in its Endocrine Function where hormones are created. These types of cancers of the pancreas are referred to “neuroendocrine” or “islet cell tumors”. They are the least aggressive of pancreas cancer and generally have a much better prognosis than pancreatic adenocarcinoma. This is the type of cancer that Steve Jobs died from.
What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?
Gene mutations cause abnormal changes in the DNA of cells that forms cancer. Often many mutations are needed before a pancreatic cell (or any other cell in the body) becomes a cancer cell. Essentially DNA tells a cell what to do. Mutated cells will grow out of control, collecting together to form a malignant tumor mass.
Changes in cell DNA form the cancer of the pancreas but many gene mutations are needed before pancreas cells become cancer cells. Gene mutation can be inherited or acquired via risk factors both within a person’s control or beyond his or her control. Many inherited gene mutation syndromes can increase the risk of getting pancreatic cancer.