The pancreas produces enzymes that help break down food and hormones, such as insulin, that help control blood sugar levels. It’s located behind your stomach and in front of your spine, so it’s difficult for your doctor to feel it during a routine exam. Pancreatic cancer usually begins in the cells that produce the digestive juices.
According to estimates by the American Cancer Society, more than 48,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. Because symptoms don’t usually show up during the early stages, pancreatic cancer is typically diagnosed at a very late stage, when it’s more challenging to treat.
El Camino Health’s cancer program has brought together a team of doctors chosen for their superior educational background, specialty training and proven expertise. They also understand the toll cancer takes on you not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.
Our doctors see new patients within 48 hours and aggressively treat pancreatic cancer, whether it’s an early or advanced stage.
Our program is accredited by the American College of Surgeon’s Commission on Cancer, and we have a significantly higher five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer when compared to national benchmarks. We’re especially strong in helping people with advanced stages of pancreatic cancer live better and longer as compared to the overall population of people with pancreatic cancer.
Symptoms, Diagnosis and Staging
Symptoms of early pancreatic cancer can be subtle or nonexistent. As the disease progresses, signs of pancreatic cancer may include:
- Dark urine, pale stools, stools that float in the toilet or diarrhea in certain cases.
- Jaundice (yellow cast to skin and eyes).
- Pain in the upper part of the belly.
- Pain in the middle part of the back that doesn’t go away with a shift in position.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Weakness or feeling very tired, dizzy and chilled.
- Decreased appetite or feelings of fullness.
- Unexplained weight loss.
Smoking and consuming three or more alcoholic drinks per day put you at higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer.
In addition to performing a thorough history and physical exam, our doctors may order one or more of the following tests:
- Computed tomography (CT) scan – A detailed X-ray, which produces a computerized image that can reveal a pancreatic tumor.
- Transabdominal ultrasound – An imaging test using a handheld ultrasound device over the abdomen that may show a tumor or blocked ducts in the pancreas.
- Endoscopic ultrasound test (EUS) – A tube with an ultrasound probe at the end is inserted through your mouth and throat and threaded down to the small intestine. This test can reveal a pancreatic tumor, along with any blood vessel involvement.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) – A technique that combines the use of endoscopy and X-ray to image inside of the stomach and upper small intestine. We inject contrast dye into the pancreas and bile ducts so they can be easily seen on X-rays.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – A test that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create images of internal organs.
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan – A 3D nuclear imaging technique that helps reveal how your tissues and organs are functioning. Our staff will inject a special dye into your body with radioactive tracers. As the dye is absorbed by your organs, the PET scan creates images of the organs.
If you have a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, your doctor will “stage” the cancer to determine the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to other tissues and organs. Pancreatic cancer tends to spread, or metastasize, to the lymph nodes, liver and lungs. Staging helps determine the best course of treatment.
We offer the most advanced treatment options for pancreatic cancer, following the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines, the highest standard in cancer care.
Each week, El Camino Health’s tumor board brings together cancer experts from a variety of disciplines to collaborate on customized care plans for patients. As we pool our knowledge and experience, we work together toward a common goal — to make sure you get the best possible care.
Your treatment plan for pancreatic cancer will include one or more of these options:
We administer drugs that kill cancer cells, intravenously or sometimes in pill form. The Cancer Center’s chemotherapy room, on the first floor of the Oak Pavilion, is filled with natural light and designed for comfort, with amenities such as snack baskets and blankets.
Strides in chemotherapy drugs have made their side effects far less debilitating than they once were. Our medical oncologists discuss possible side effects in advance of your treatment so you know what to expect. We manage the side effects aggressively, giving you anti-nausea and pain medication, as well as intravenous hydration as soon as you need them. By managing your symptoms, we can keep your treatment course on track for maximum effectiveness.
El Camino Health is unique among community hospitals in using targeted therapy to create a special combination of drugs to combat your pancreatic tumor. We study a sample of your tumor in a lab to analyze the proteins and chemicals that make up the cancer. Then, we use current data to decide which drugs will have the maximum effect in eliminating the cancer.
El Camino Health’s cancer program has a highly skilled, fellowship trained pancreatic surgeon who perform minimally invasive laparoscopic and robotic-assisted surgeries to remove cancerous tissue in the pancreas and surrounding organs. These procedures use smaller incisions than open surgeries and result in less blood loss and fewer complications following surgery.
The most common procedure for pancreatic cancer is the Whipple procedure, which removes the head of the pancreas (where most pancreatic cancer occurs), part of the small intestine, the gall bladder, part of the stomach, and lymph nodes near the head of the pancreas.
For cancer in the body or tail of the pancreas, a surgeon removes these areas as well as the spleen, an organ that filters blood and aids the immune system.
In a small number of cases, a surgeon removes the entire pancreas.
Radiation therapy can be helpful in some cases of pancreatic cancer, often in combination with chemotherapy or surgery. Our radiation oncologists will evaluate all options and recommend what’s best for your unique circumstances. Standard radiation therapy typically is given in sessions over several weeks, using high-energy radiation beams to kill cancer cells.
We also offer the sophisticated stereotactic radiosurgery technique, which allows delivery of radiation beams with submillimeter accuracy. We have the latest machines to deliver the radiation beams, called CyberKnife® and RapidArc®, both known for their high levels of precision and ability to spare healthy tissue surrounding the tumor.
Radiation oncologists at El Camino Health have performed more than 5,000 radiosurgery treatments for multiple types of cancer and offer consultations within 24 hours.
Gastrointestinal (GI) Stent
To relieve pain caused by a blocked bile duct, we can use endoscopy to thread a small drainage tube called a GI stent through the throat to the area of the blocked duct. Once in place, the stent allows bile to flow across the blockage to the small intestine and eliminates pain caused by the blockage.
In addition to advanced therapies, El Camino Health offers a variety of specialized services, support and assistance to address the psychological, emotional and spiritual needs of you and your family members throughout treatment and recovery.
The El Camino Health Cancer Center works with other medical centers and the National Cancer Institute to offer you the opportunity to participate in ongoing clinical trials. Ask your doctor about how to participate in a clinical trial.