Pancreatic Tumours

The pancreas is a gland which sits behind the stomach in the upper abdomen. It has two principle functions:

  • Producing insulin to control blood sugar levels
  • Secreting enzymes into the gut to aid food digestion

Around the pancreas are several important anatomical structures including the bile duct, the spleen and the major blood vessels to the intestines.

There are different types of pancreatic tumours including malignant (cancerous) and benign forms. The majority of solid pancreatic tumours are malignant whereas many cystic (fluid filled) tumours are benign. Some cystic tumours are entirely benign but others have the potential to develop into a cancer – therefore accurate diagnosis is critical.

Cancer of the pancreas is a common cause of death in Australia. When tumours grow in the pancreas they are frequently asymptomatic until they obstruct the bile duct and the liver causing jaundice. Other symptoms may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Back pain
  • Now onset or worsening diabetes

When a cancer of the pancreas is suspected several different tests may be necessary including blood tests, CT scans, MRI scans, PET scans and endoscopic ultrasounds (ultrasound via a telescope in the stomach). The aim of the investigations is generally to determine the extent of the cancer in the pancreas and look for evidence of spread to other organs. If possible surgery is offered as it offers the only potential for a cure. Surgery of the pancreas is challenging and should be carried out by specialists in the field.

All pancreatic tumours are discussed in a multidisciplinary meeting at the Austin with surgeons, oncologists, pathologists, nuclear physicians and radiologists present.

Photo: Eugene Hyland, Newspix

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