The pancreas is a vital organ in the human body. Its role is to secrete insulin and digestive enzymes to help the body break down food.

The pancreas is located in the abdomen and surrounded by the liver, intestines, spleen and stomach. It is positioned over several very important blood vessels that supply blood to the liver and the intestines.

Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive form of cancer often referred to as the Silent Killer. The American Cancer Society estimates in the United States 56,770 people will develop pancreatic cancer, and of those people 45,750 will succumb to the disease in 2019. Most cases of pancreatic cancer occur after the age of 60.

The risk factors for pancreatic cancer include smoking, obesity, chronic pancreatitis, family history (parent, sibling, children), diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer do not occur right away, making it a difficult cancer to detect and diagnose at an early stage. Symptoms can include abdominal pain or back pain, unexplained weight loss, nausea, fatigue, new onset diabetes, yellowing of the skin and eyes and loss of appetite.

Since pancreatic cancer is most frequently diagnosed in later stages, the cancer often spreads to other organs.

Pancreatic cancer is diagnosed through a physical examination, blood tests and diagnostic tools such as Ultrasound, CT (computerized tomography) scan, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or PET (positron emission tomography) scan. A biopsy is performed to confirm the diagnosis.

The most common treatment options for pancreatic cancer include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. A surgical treatment option for early stage pancreatic cancer is the Whipple procedure.

The Whipple, also known as a pancreaticoduodenectomy, is a technically complex operation to treat tumors of the head of the pancreas, bile duct and duodenum (first part of the intestine) and complications of chronic pancreatitis.

It is a complex operation due to the pancreas being located behind the stomach and over blood vessels that supply blood to the liver and intestines. The Whipple surgical procedure is a probable curative treatment for early stage pancreatic cancer, but it is not for everyone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Like with other forms of cancer, the earlier pancreatic cancer is detected and treated, the better outcome the patient will have. It is important to know the warning signs of pancreatic cancer and to have an awareness of your own health. If you experience the symptoms of pancreatic cancer, speak to your doctor right away.

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Dr. John Richey is a board-certified general surgeon with Pee Dee Surgical Group. His expertise includes advanced training in complex biliary and pancreatic surgery. He is specially trained in ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography) and biliary and pancreatic surgery. Richey is accepting new patients. To schedule an appointment, call 843-665-7941.

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