Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of the pancreas, an organ that lies behind the lower part of your stomach. The pancreas produces enzymes that the body needs for digesting fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. It also produces hormones that regulates the body’s blood sugar levels. Often, the cancer does not cause any symptoms until later stages, which is precisely why many refer to pancreatic cancer as the ‘silent killer’.
When diagnosing pancreatic cancer, the doctor determines how advanced the cancer is by observing how big the cancer tumour has grown, and whether these cells have spread beyond the pancreas. This process, called staging, helps to categorise how severe the cancer is and guide the choice of treatments. There are some occasions where the doctors can only identify the stage of the cancer by performing surgery.
Here is what you need to know about the different stages of pancreatic cancer.
Initially, the tumours only exist in the pancreas and can usually be removed by surgery. After surgery, there is a possibility that small cancer cells may remain in the body. Therefore, doctors would recommend patients to get treatments such as chemotherapy even after surgery to prevent these cancer cells from spreading or forming new tumours.
At this stage, the tumours have spread to nearby abdominal tissues and lymph nodes. It is still possible to remove the tumour by surgery. Those with borderline resectable pancreatic cancer may undergo treatments such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or radiation therapy to shrink the tumour before surgery.
During stage 3, the tumour has spread to major blood vessels and lymph nodes. Most of the time, stage 3 tumours cannot be removed by surgery. Some of the symptoms pancreatic cancer patients experience at this stage are pain in the back, pain in the upper abdomen, and loss of appetite.
While stage 3 pancreatic cancer can be difficult to cure, there are treatments to reduce the chances of the cancer further spreading and ease the symptoms. The treatments include surgery to remove part of the pancreas, anti-cancer drugs, and radiation therapy. It is common to have a recurrence during this stage of cancer due to tiny areas of undetectable cancer growth.
Pancreatic cancer is categorised under stage 4 when cancer cells have spread to other organs, such as the liver, brain, or lungs. Many times, pancreatic cancer is only diagnosed during the later stage as there are rarely symptoms until it has spread to other organs. Some of the symptoms a person might experience during this stage include pain in the upper abdomen, bloated stomach, pale stools, loss of appetite, or jaundice.
While no treatments as of yet have been successful in curing stage 4 pancreatic cancer, there are treatments one can undergo to relieve the symptoms and prevent other complications. These treatments include chemotherapy, palliative pain treatments, bile duct stent or bypass surgery, and gastric bypass surgery.
Understanding the stages of pancreatic cancer recognises that everyone’s pancreatic cancer journey is different, and can reduce fear and uncertainty by helping one be aware of what is happening in their body.
However, other factors can also affect one’s prognosis and experience, from their age, health condition, to the grade of cancer cells. Close communication with one’s doctors is key, so that they can provide the best possible treatment at the given stage and health condition.