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The pancreas, which is located behind the stomach, is an organ in the body which produces insulin. Insulin is needed to regulate the amount of blood sugar in the body. The two types of cells that makeup the pancreas are, exocrine and endocrine cells. A pancreatic tumor can develop from either of these types of cells.
A pancreatic tumor occurs when either type of cell reproduces wildly and forms a mass. There are different types of pancreatic tumors. The vast majority of tumors are adenocarcinomas and develop from the exocrine cells. Unfortunately, this type of pancreatic tumor is malignant, meaning it is cancerous. A small number of tumors develop from the endocrine cells and are often benign.
Exact causes of a pancreatic tumor are not known. There does appear to be certain risk factors for developing a tumor. Individuals who have chronic pancreatitis, often from alcoholism, have a higher risk of developing a tumor. Other risk factors include, diabetes, smoking and advanced age.
Symptoms from a pancreatic tumor may be similar to other illness and therefore a diagnosis is often not made immediately. Because of the location of the pancreas, back pain is often a symptom. Other symptoms may include, weight loss, bloating and pain in the stomach and diarrhea. As the tumor continues to grow, jaundice may occur, which is yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes.
Diagnosis is often made through a computed tomography (CT) scan and ultrasound. If the tests indicate the presence of a tumor, a biopsy may be done to confirm whether the tumor is malignant or benign. Since the majority of pancreatic tumors are cancerous, many doctors will hold off on a biopsy until surgery to remove the tumor is performed.
Surgery is one of the main treatments for a pancreatic tumor, however not all types pancreatic tumors will be able to be removed. The decision for surgery will depend on whether the tumor is benign or malignant and how advanced it is. Different surgical procedures are used based on the size and location of the tumor.
Additional treatment is often needed for a tumor if it is malignant. Radiation therapy may be prescribed. Chemotherapy, which is a combination of different medications, may also be part of the treatment plan.
The effectiveness of treatment can partially be monitored through a blood test called the CA 19-9. Pancreatic tumors shed cells which contain a protein called CA 19-9. The blood test monitors the level of the protein in the blood and is consider a tumor marker. This test helps indicate how much of the tumor is still left in the body.