House Call: Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells grow out of control in the pancreas, a gland located in the abdomen. The pancreas is a dual-function gland, providing the body with essential functions in both the endocrine and digestive systems. Cancer of the pancreas is sometimes called a “silent” disease because symptoms are not usually present in early stages. Unlike many other cancers, there is not a screening test that can accurately detect pancreatic cancer.  Imaging and labs can be totally normal even with lymph node positive cancer.

Although pancreatic cancer is known as a silent disease, it is still extremely important to know the symptoms and risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer so those individuals at high risk can begin getting regular scans.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include:

  • The most specific symptom of pancreatic cancer is jaundice.
    • Jaundice is yellow colored skin and/or yellow colored eyes.
    • People with jaundice usually also have abnormal colored urine or abnormal colored bowel movements.
  • Unremitting itching
  • Abdominal pain and/or back pain
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
  • New onset diabetes
  • Digestive difficulties including indigestion and nausea
  • Fatty diarrhea
  • Ascites (the abnormal build-up of fluid in the abdominal cavity)
  • Blood clots
  • Fatigue, weakness and/or depression

Factors that increase the risk for developing pancreatic cancer include:

  • Older adult
  • Male
  • Obesity
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer or other cancers
  • Genetic syndromes:
    • Lynch syndrome, a genetic condition predisposing carriers to colon cancer
    • BRCA 2, a breast cancer gene
  • African American

Surgical treatment is an important part of the treatment of early-stage pancreatic cancer and is associated with longer survival. Chemotherapy may also be administered prior to surgery. Unfortunately, only about 15% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are candidates for surgery.  Disqualifying conditions may include:

Tumor factors

  • Higher stage disease (Stage III – IV)
  • Invading critical surrounding structures

Patient factors

  • Medical problems like heart disease or lung disease
  • Frailty and/or poor nutrition

Through a multidisciplinary approach, the exceptional team of physicians and healthcare professionals at Cone Health Cancer Center meet to discuss each pancreatic cancer patient’s case and develop an individualized treatment plan.  This is important because surgery is rarely the only treatment for pancreatic cancer.

Spokesperson Background:

Dr. Faera Byerly is a surgical oncologist at Cone Health Cancer Center and Central Carolina Surgery.  Dr. Byerly is a 2001 graduate of University of North Carolina School of Medicine and completed her residency in general surgery at UNC Health Care.  She completed a fellowship in surgical oncology and surgical critical care at UNC Health Care and a fellowship in burn research at NC Jaycee Burn Center.