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By Kara Johnson Green

A pragmatic look into pancreatic cancer

Cancer is a term widely used to describe diseases that destroy body tissue. When a person's DNA becomes damaged, their cells can become cancerous. In normal cellular activity, a cell will repair itself or die when its DNA is impaired. Cancerous cells neither repair themselves, nor die off, but create more cells in their likeness that do nothing to support the body. Different types of cancers have different paths of development, signs and symptoms.

Origination and development

Cancer cells can be distinguished from normal cells by the way they grow. A normal cell has a life cycle that consists of three stages: growth, division into new cells and then dying off. Cancerous cells continuously grow and divide, forming abnormal cells. These abnormal cells develop into tumors, or grow into other tissues. Several types of endocrine and exocrine tumors develop in the pancreas as a result of abnormal cells.

When we hear about cancer of the endocrine system, the pancreas quickly comes to mind. The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach that contains endocrine and exocrine glands. The exocrine glands release a fluid into the intestines that contain enzymes for digestion. Within the endocrine glands are alpha and beta cells that produce hormones. The alpha cells make glucagon that triggers the liver to break down glycogen for the release of glucose in the blood. The beta cells make insulin that is responsible for cellular uptake of glucose from the bloodstream. Both endocrine and exocrine cells are capable of producing tumors; however, pancreatic cancer usually originates from the exocrine glands.

Symptoms and treatments

Pancreatic cancer tumors are deeply interior and can't be detected by routine exams. Symptoms will not become present until the cancer spreads to other organs. Some of the general symptoms are abdominal pain, anemia, back pain, chills, diarrhea, depression, fatigue and loss of appetite. An advanced stage sign of pancreatic cancer is an increase in certain protein levels in the body. Treatment therapies include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Surgery requires cancerous tissue on or around the pancreas to be removed to restore proper functioning. Chemotherapy kills cancer cells and shrinks tumors; however, cancerous cells aren't the only cells affected by this treatment. Chemotherapy affects bone marrow and hair follicles, and has side effects of nausea, hair loss and loss of appetite. Radiation therapy entails using X-rays to treat cancers. Radiation treatment is painless, but does come with side effects such as changes in skin texture, tiredness, nausea and weight loss.

Causes and prevention

While there are no hard and fast rules that determine who develops cancer, research has pinpointed some key factors. Some of the hereditary markers for developing pancreatic cancer are age, gender, race and family history. Some practices that can aid in prevention of this form of cancer are not smoking and discontinuation of tobacco use, maintaining a healthy body weight through diet and exercise and taking safety precautions when working with chemicals. Cancer causing chemicals, such as tobacco, can create gene mutations that contribute to and increase the risk of health problems.

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