Pancreatic Cancer: What Are Its Symptoms and Causes?

pancreatic cancer Aretha Franklin

With Aretha Franklin’s recent death due to pancreatic cancer, people are asking: What is this insidious disease, what are symptoms and how is it treated? Dr. Christos Galanopoulos of the Renown Institute for Cancer explains.

Last month, we mourned the loss of Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. She died of pancreatic cancer, which is the third-leading cause of death from cancer in the United States after lung and colorectal cancers, when both sexes are combined.

Franklin’s passing has brought attention to the aggressive form of cancer, which according to the American Cancer Society, will afflict an estimated 55,400 Americans in 2018. 

We asked Christos Galanopoulos, MD, vice president and chief clinical officer of the Renown Institute for Cancer, to explain more.

How does pancreatic cancer occur?

The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen next to the stomach. It’s about six inches long and looks something like a pear lying on its side. It releases hormones, including insulin, to help your body process sugar in the foods you eat. It also produces juices to help digest food.

Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in your pancreas develop mutations in their DNA. These mutations cause cells to grow uncontrollably and form a tumor. When untreated, this disease spreads to nearby organs and blood vessels.

What are the signs that someone may have pancreatic cancer?

If you are experiencing persistent fatigue, abdominal pain, jaundice or unexplained weight loss, you should see your doctor. Keep in mind that other conditions may cause all of these symptoms. However, it’s a good idea to consult a physician to rule out the possibility of pancreatic cancer. The onset of diabetes also can indicate possible pancreatic cancer. This would be checked as someone is receiving treatment for diabetes.

Are the causes of this type of cancer known?

As with many cancers, the exact causes are not known, but smoking is one factor known to double a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer. Other factors that may contribute to the risk of pancreatic cancer include being overweight, having a poor diet, age and family history.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Once a diagnosis is confirmed — usually through diagnostic imaging such as ultrasound, CT scan, PET scan or MRI — treatment may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of these.


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