Skip to main content
UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

Pancreatic Cancer

News & Features

Read Lana Young's story  HERE 

Pancreatic patient shares her story  

Dedicated runner Lana Young is grateful after minimally invasive surgery.

Bold and Virudachalam © 2010 UC Regents 

Finding pancreatic cancer’s weakness  

A metabolic defect may be the key to crippling the disease.

New Patient Support

Peer Navigator Program 

Peer navigator program provides one-to-one peer support  

This special program matches newly-diagnosed cancer patients with cancer survivors.

Related Resources

breast cancer cellPancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:  To produce juices that help digest (break down) food, and to produce hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help control blood sugar levels. Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.  The digestive juices are produced by exocrine pancreas cells and the hormones are produced by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells.

The UC Davis pancreatic cancer program utilizes a full team of professionals and revolutionary techniques to treat patients and relieve them of their symptoms.

Clinical Trials at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center
UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center has a large clinical trials network. The close collaboration among our doctors and our research scientists means that new drugs and treatments developed in the laboratory can quickly move to the clinic, offering our patients immediate access to the latest therapies.

Risk Factors

  • Smoking
  • Long-standing diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Certain hereditary conditions, such as:
    • hereditary pancreatitis
    • multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 syndrome (Abnormal and uncontrolled cell growth)
    • hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome)
    • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome
    • ataxia-telangiectasia
    • familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome

Sources: National Cancer Institute and UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center 

Signs and Symptoms

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue

Sources: National Cancer Institute and UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center 

Diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for the following reasons:

  • There aren’t any noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.
  • The signs of pancreatic cancer, when present, are like the signs of many other illnesses.
  • The pancreas is hidden behind other organs such as the stomach, small intestineliver,gallbladderspleen, and bile ducts.

Pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed with tests and procedures that produce pictures of the pancreas and the area around it. The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within and around the pancreas is called staging. Tests and procedures to detect, diagnose, and stage pancreatic cancer are usually done at the same time. In order to plan treatment, it is important to know the stage of the disease and whether or not the pancreatic cancer can be removed by surgery. The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography. A spiral or helical CT scan makes a series of very detailed pictures of areas inside the body using an x-ray machine that scans the body in a spiral path.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radionuclide glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): A procedure in which an endoscope is inserted into the body, usually through the mouth or rectum. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. A probe at the end of the endoscope is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. This procedure is also called endosonography.
  • Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the abdomen to check for signs of disease. Small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen and a laparoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted into one of the incisions. Other instruments may be inserted through the same or other incisions to perform procedures such as removing organs or taking tissue samples for biopsy.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): A procedure used to x-ray the ducts (tubes) that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder and from the gallbladder to the small intestine. Sometimes pancreatic cancer causes these ducts to narrow and block or slow the flow of bile, causing jaundice. An endoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is passed through the mouth, esophagus, and stomach into the first part of the small intestine. A catheter (a smaller tube) is then inserted through the endoscope into the pancreatic ducts. A dye is injected through the catheter into the ducts and an x-ray is taken. If the ducts are blocked by a tumor, a fine tube may be inserted into the duct to unblock it. This tube (or stent) may be left in place to keep the duct open. Tissue samples may also be taken.
  • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC): A procedure used to x-ray the liver and bile ducts. A thin needle is inserted through the skin below the ribs and into the liver. Dye is injected into the liver or bile ducts and an x-ray is taken. If a blockage is found, a thin, flexible tube called a stent is sometimes left in the liver to drain bile into the small intestine or a collection bag outside the body. This test is done only if ERCP cannot be done.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. There are several ways to do a biopsy for pancreatic cancer. A fine needle may be inserted into the pancreas during an x-ray or ultrasound to remove cells. Tissue may also be removed during a laparoscopy (a surgical incision made in the wall of the abdomen).

Sources: National Cancer Institute and UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center 

Treatment

Surgery

One of the following types of surgery may be used to take out the tumor:

  • Whipple procedure: A surgical procedure in which the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, and the bile duct are removed. Enough of the pancreas is left to produce digestive juices and insulin.
  • Total pancreatectomy: This operation removes the whole pancreas, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, the common bile duct, the gallbladder, the spleen, and nearby lymph nodes.
  • Distal pancreatectomy: The body and the tail of the pancreas and usually the spleen are removed.

If the cancer has spread and cannot be removed, the following types of palliative surgery may be done to relieve symptoms:

  • Surgical biliary bypass: If cancer is blocking the small intestine and bile is building up in the gallbladder, a biliary bypass may be done. During this operation, the doctor will cut the gallbladder or bile duct and sew it to the small intestine to create a new pathway around the blocked area.
  • Endoscopic stent placement: If the tumor is blocking the bile duct, surgery may be done to put in a stent (a thin tube) to drain bile that has built up in the area. The doctor may place the stent through a catheter that drains to the outside of the body or the stent may go around the blocked area and drain the bile into the small intestine.
  • Gastric bypass: If the tumor is blocking the flow of food from the stomach, the stomach may be sewn directly to the small intestine so the patient can continue to eat normally.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is home to one of the largest clinical studies programs in the nation.  These studies can offer our gastrointestinal cancer patients access to the latest drugs and therapies, frequently unavailable elsewhere.

Sources: National Cancer Institute and UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center 

Your Team

Diagnostic Radiology

John P. McGahan, M.D.
Professor of Radiology
Chief of Abdominal Imaging and Ultrasound

C. John Rosenquist, M.D.
Professor of Radiology
Chief of Gastrointestinal Radiology

 

Gastroenterology

Joseph W. Leung, M.D.
Professor of Medicine
Chief of Gastroenterology

Thomas Prindiville, M.D.
Professor of Medicine, Gastroenterology

Shiro Urayama, M.D.
Associate Professor of Medicine, Gastroenterology

Ali Azarm, M.D.
Associate Physician Diplomate
Department of Internal Medicine
Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology
Advanced therapeutic endoscopy

 

Hematology and Oncology

I-Yeh Gong, M.D.
Associate Professor of Medicine, Hematology and Oncology

Edward Kim, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Medicine, Hematology and Oncology

Thomas J. Semrad, M.D., M.A.S.
Assistant Professor of Medicine, Hematology and Oncology

Michael Tanaka, Jr., M.D.
Associate Professor of Medicine, Hematology and Oncology

 

Surgical Oncology

Richard Bold, M.D.
Chief of Surgical Oncology
Professor of Surgery

Anthony D. Yang, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Surgery

 

Radiation Oncology

Jyoti Mayadev, M.D. 
Assistant Professor

Arta Monjazeb, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor

Support

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is dedicated to caring for the whole patient.  We offer: