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Pancreatic Cancer


What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is an organ that plays a vital role in your digestive system, producing enzymes to help digest food and hormones to regulate blood sugar. The most common pancreatic cancer is called adenocarcinoma, a disease that remains medically challenging because it’s typically caught late.

At Aurora Health Care, you’ll find a nationally recognized team working to provide the best possible pancreatic cancer care. When our team finds pancreatic cancer in early stages, surgeons provide safe and effective ways to remove it. In other cases, your team offers the latest options to treat the cancer and improve your quality of life. Research continues into new and promising approaches.


What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

Doctors and researchers don’t know exactly why people get pancreatic cancer. They have identified risk factors that can increase your chance of developing the disease:

  • Having diabetes
  • Being exposed to certain chemicals
  • Aging, with almost all pancreatic cancer in people over 45 and the majority in those over 65
  • Having a scarred liver (cirrhosis)
  • Being overweight, especially people with obesity
  • Smoking or using other tobacco
  • Experiencing repeated inflammation in your pancreas from chronic pancreatitis

Hereditary Risk for Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer and related cancers can run in families. Up to 10% of pancreatic cancers are tied to inherited genetic mutations that increase your chance of developing the disease. With genetic factors in mind, Aurora offers you two additional sources of help:

  • Genetic risk assessment: You can speak with a genetic counselor and potentially get tested for inherited mutations. Learn more about genetic counseling and testing.
  • Screening: Staff at our Familial Pancreatic Cancer Screening Program can speak with you about your potential risk. If needed, a specially trained gastroenterologist can use endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) to check for signs of the disease at regular intervals. Call 888-333-1306 or 414-385-2476.


Signs & Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don’t appear until the disease has spread outside the pancreas. These symptoms overlap with those caused by other diseases and can include:

  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Swelling of the abdomen
  • Weight loss
  • Yellowing of skin and whites of eyes (jaundice)


Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer

Your doctor usually starts with a complete physical exam and questions about your symptoms, medical history and family. Blood tests evaluate liver function and look for substances tumors typically produce. If doctors find a tumor, they may take a sample of it.

Most people undergo imaging tests, with options that include:

  • Computed tomography (CT): Multiple X-rays show the pancreas and surrounding organs.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound: A thin tube (endoscope) with a light and a camera goes through the mouth and down into the stomach, where it uses sound waves to examine the nearby pancreas.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): An endoscope goes through the mouth down to the small intestine, inserting contrast dye so the pancreatic and bile ducts show up better on X-rays. Learn more about endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography.


Treatments for Pancreatic Cancer

Your team offers a number of approaches to treat pancreatic cancer, often using them in combination. They work with you to determine the best treatments in the best order for you. Treatments include:

  • Ablation: Ablation destroys tumors with heat, cold or electricity, delivered through a needle or during minimally invasive surgery. At diagnosis, many pancreatic cancers are too extensive for standard surgery but have not yet spread elsewhere in the body. A newer cancer ablation, NanoKnife, provides an effective option for these locally advanced cancers with a 2015 study showing a doubled survival rate.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs destroy cancerous cells throughout the body but can also damage some healthy cells. Your team might recommend chemotherapy to shrink tumors before surgery, catch cancerous cells after surgery or treat late-stage disease.
  • Radiation therapy: Your team may recommend radiation therapy to shrink tumors before surgery, destroy any remaining cancer after surgery or relieve pain from cancer that has spread (metastasized). It may also help treat locally advanced cancer. Options include CyberKnife and intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT).
  • Surgery: When possible, your team tries to remove the tumor during cancer surgery, providing the best chance for survival. Your team may need to take out most or all of your pancreas before providing insulin, digestive enzymes and nutritional counseling. Surgeries include:
    • Pancreaticoduodenectomy (Whipple): This surgery removes the gallbladder and parts of the pancreas, small intestine, stomach and bile duct. Aurora surgeons specialize in minimally invasive approaches, helping you recover faster. Learn more about the Whipple procedure.
    • Distal pancreatectomy: Your surgeon also removes a portion of the spleen in addition to the pancreas. 
    • Total pancreatectomy: Your surgeon removes the entire pancreas, gallbladder and spleen and parts of the small intestine, stomach and bile duct.
    • Symptom relief: Sometimes surgery can’t provide a cure but can relieve symptoms. Your surgeon may insert a stent or construct a bypass if a tumor blocks key parts of your gastrointestinal system.

Treating Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer

When standard treatments no longer work for stage 4 cancer, the new Oncology Precision Medicine Clinic can provide new options and new hope. Learn more about precision medicine for cancer.

Clinical Trials: Explore Your Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Options

You can try new treatment options before they become widely available through clinical trials at the Aurora Research Institute.

Thanks to a federal grant, you can now participate closer to home with clinical trial access at all Aurora cancer clinics. All Aurora oncologists can enroll you in a trial, making the process even easier. Search clinical trials.

The Aurora Difference

Nationally Recognized Pancreatic Cancer Care With All the Treatments & Support You Need

The pancreatic cancer clinic at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center handles your evaluation and more specialized treatments. You can choose to receive other care through your local Aurora cancer clinic.

Collectively, the program offers:

  • National recognition: Two national groups recognize Aurora’s pancreatic cancer program and related services, giving you confidence when choosing your care. The recognitions come from:
    • National Pancreas Foundation (NPF): The foundation has designated Aurora St. Luke’s as one of its official pancreatic cancer centers. Programs must show they have the range of specialists needed for top care, services that provide full support and a commitment to leading research. Aurora St. Luke’s is the first Wisconsin hospital to achieve this distinction, joining 30 centers in 20 states.
    • U.S. News and World Report: The publication has ranked Aurora St. Luke’s as high performing for gastroenterology and GI surgery, the specialty that performs pancreatic surgery.
  • Top doctors: Your Aurora cancer doctors have all earned board certification after passing extensive tests of their skills and knowledge. Many have also completed additional, highly specialized fellowship training. Find a doctor.
  • Team-based care: Aurora St. Luke’s brings together experts in medical oncology, surgical oncology, radiation oncology, interventional radiology and gastroenterology. This collaboration ensures a thorough review of your case and provides access to the most current treatment approaches and research. You often see all the specialists needed for your evaluation in one visit, so you can begin treatment sooner. Learn more about your cancer team.
  • Latest treatments: You have access to the latest treatments, including robotic-assisted and other minimally invasive surgery, scalpel-free NanoKnife ablation and targeted CyberKnife radiation therapy. Aurora is the first Wisconsin cancer program to use NanoKnife, CyberKnife and robotic-assisted surgery, giving your doctors the most experience with those treatments.
  • Full support: You and your loved ones can access a full range of additional support, including help with pancreatic cancer symptoms. Learn more about cancer support.

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