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Pancreatic Cancer

What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is a very large gland which sits behind the stomach and in front of the spine. The pancreas is made up of two kinds of cells:

  • Exocrine pancreas cells make enzymes that are released into the small intestine to help the body digest food.

  • Neuroendocrine pancreas cells (such as islet cells) make several hormones, including insulin and glucagon, that help control sugar levels in the blood.

Most often, pancreatic cancer forms in the exocrine cells. When they do, the tumors do not secrete hormones and do not cause signs or symptoms. This makes it hard to detect this type of cancer early. In some cases, pancreatic cancer forms in the neuroendocrine pancreatic cells. When this happens, it causes pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (these are also known as islet cell tumors).

Cystic Tumors of the Pancreas

Over the past several years, the use of computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has increased. As a result, pancreatic cysts – sacs of fluid growing in or on the pancreas – have been discovered and studied.

There are various types of cysts (sacs of fluid) that can develop in the pancreas. Research has shown that some types of cysts are associated with an increased risk for developing pancreatic cancer. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a cystic tumor, it’s important they receive a comprehensive evaluation to determine if surgery, surveillance, or no further intervention is recommended.

What are the chances of recovery and treatment options for pancreatic cancer?

Many factors determine the treatment options and the chances for recovery. Some of these are:

  • pancreatic cancer staging (the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread outside the pancreas to nearby tissues or lymph nodes or to other places in the body)

  • whether or not the tumor can be removed by surgery (tumors that can be removed surgically are called resectable)

  • the patient's general health

Pancreatic cancer can be controlled for a lifetime (or cured) if it is found before it has spread to other organs -- and if it can be completely removed by surgery.

If the cancer has spread, or is inoperable, your doctors will discuss treatments that can control the symptoms and complications of this disease.

Why get treatment at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center?

The U-M Pancreatic Cancer Clinic defines the best approach to care; leads the nation in the approach to tumors; and sets the guidelines and standards now being used around the world.

We are pioneering a simple blood test that can be used to perform an entire clinical trial in three weeks. This enables the detection of pancreatic cancer at its earliest stages, before development of invasive cancer, and serves as an efficient sample in identifying effective drug therapy.

Through genetic testing, we can now determine risk -- within in a 40-50 percent success rate -- in patients with a family history of pancreatic cancer who have not yet developed the disease. Looking ahead, we are committed to increasing the early detection of risk to 100 percent accuracy.

We are personalizing drug therapies to patients by cultivating and sequencing their circulating tumor cells in the lab, cataloguing the full host of gene mutations (out of 63 possible) and treating those tumor samples with various drugs. This enables us to identify the most effective drug therapy prior to prescription.

We have the largest number of dedicated, interdisciplinary pancreatic cancer researchers in the country, including internationally-recognized leadership.

Learn more about pancreatic cancer and treatment at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center

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