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Pancreatic cancer occurs in the pancreas, a large organ behind the stomach. The pancreas makes and releases enzymes into the intestines that help the body digest and absorb food, especially fats. The organ also makes and releases insulin and glucagon. These are hormones that help the body control blood sugar levels.

Pancreatic cancer: Risk factors

The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown. The risk for pancreatic cancer increases with age. Family history of the disease also slightly increases the chance of developing this cancer. Typically, the disease is more common in people who:

  • Are obese
  • Have a diet high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables
  • Have diabetes
  • Have long-term exposure to certain chemicals
  • Have long-term inflammation of the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis)
  • Smoke

Treatment options for pancreatic cancer

The nature of pancreatic cancer, combined with the location of the pancreas and its proximity to other sensitive tissues, can make the disease challenging to treat.

  • Pancreatic cancer treatment may include surgery alone, a combination of surgery and radiation therapy, or radiation therapy alone, as well as chemotherapy.
  • In many cases, surgery cannot be performed or is insufficient to control the disease. In such patients, radiation therapy for pancreatic cancer treatment can be helpful as well as chemotherapy.
  • Even when it is possible to completely remove the cancer with surgery, radiation therapy may be used after surgery to improve disease control or before surgery to shrink the pancreatic tumor. In most cases, chemotherapy is also considered.

Genetic counseling and testing

Genetic counseling is a service that helps patients understand the medical, psychological and familial impact of genetic disease. Our board-certified genetic counselor is trained to identify high-risk families and help them understand their risk of developing pancreatic cancer as well as their options for prevention, early detection and treatment.

Genetic testing helps patients and their families learn more about genes. Genetic testing looks for variations in genes that might lead to disease. Genetic testing is done for a variety of reasons, such as confirming a disease you are suspected to have or understanding the cause of a disease that runs in your family. It can help you understand your individual risk.

Genetic testing may be appropriate if:

  • You or a family member have had pancreatic cancer
  • You or a family member have had an early onset of pancreatic cancer (diagnosed prior to age 50)
  • You or a family member have been diagnosed with two different cancers or two separate cancer in the same organ
  • Multiple family members on the same side of your family with pancreatic cancer
  • You have had 10 or more colorectal polyps found during your colonoscopies
  • You have Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
  • You have a family member who tested positive for a genetic variant related to pancreatic cancer risk

A blood or saliva sample will be collected either at your physician's office or in the comfort of your home. Our genetic counselor and your physician will review results with you.

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