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Diagnosis and Causes

Why is pancreatic cancer so difficult to diagnose in its early stages?

Pancreatic cancer is hard to diagnose because the early symptoms are usually vague. Early symptoms are usually nothing more than a general feeling of discomfort in the abdomen or an unexplained weight loss. Jaundice, which occurs when the growing tumor blocks the bile duct, is often the symptom that first causes patients to go to their doctor.

Watch the video and see Dr. Simeone discussing the symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

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The pancreas is a small organ located in the back of the abdomen and surrounded by the stomach, large intestine and liver. This makes it hard to see the pancreas with imaging technologies and difficult to access to remove cells for a biopsy. Even at a small size, cancer originating in the pancreas spreads quickly to other organs.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

Like many types of cancer, pancreatic cancer is caused by a combination of inherited genetic factors and environmental or lifestyle factors, especially cigarette smoking. We know that 25% of all cases of pancreatic cancer are associated with smoking. Other environmental risk factors include a high-fat, low-fiber diet and exposure to certain industrial chemicals.

There also are genetic links to pancreatic cancer. A family history of the disease is present in about 10% of all cases. Pancreatic cancer is associated with genetic mutations known to cause other types of cancer like melanoma, breast or colon cancer. Scientists still don't know most of the gene alterations that increase a person's susceptibility to pancreatic cancer.

In recent research, U-M researchers have identified a gene called ATDC that appears to play a major role in this disease. They found that this gene was abnormally active in pancreatic tumor cells - causing tumors to grow faster and more aggressively in research mice, as well as making the cells resistant to chemotherapy. Researchers believe ATDC is a promising target for future therapies and will continue to study it.

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