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What Is Pancreatic Ductal Carcinoma?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Pancreatic ductal carcinoma refers to malignant tumors in the biliary ducts, a series of pathways that link the pancreas to the liver and gallbladder. Cells lining these ducts divide more rapidly than cells inside the pancreas itself, making pancreatic ductal carcinoma an aggressive form of cancer that might quickly spread to nearby organs. When abnormal cells develop and invade the walls of ducts, pancreatic ductal carcinoma occurs.

The most common form of tumor is called an adenocarcinoma, which occurs in about 85 percent of all pancreatic ductal carcinoma diagnosed. The prognosis for this form of cancer depends upon the location of the tumor and whether it has spread to lymph nodes, the liver, or veins and arteries in the biliary tract. If it is caught early, surgery might be perform to remove the malignancy and resection the duct using a stent, but pancreatic ductal carcinoma tends to return after treatment.

Doctors commonly evaluate the stage of cancer when developing a treatment plan. Stage one refers to a tumor that is localized and hasn’t spread. Stage two pancreatic ductal carcinoma might be suitable for surgery as long as the tumor is not attached to main arteries or veins, and a sufficient portion of the liver can be preserved. Stage three cancer means it has spread to both lobes of the liver or cannot be removed without harming vital arteries.

Pancreatic ductal cancer might begin as a benign tumor that becomes diseased. Bacterial infection might spark tumor development and changes in cells in the duct lining. Some pancreatic ductal cancers have been linked to a contrast dye called thorium dioxide used in the past for medical imaging procedures. Other toxins, such as arsenic, radiation, and certain chemicals, might also cause cancer in the ducts.

People who eat fatty foods, use tobacco, or become obese face higher risks of pancreatic ductal cancer. Certain parasites found in Asia might also increase the risk of this type of cancer. It is also connected with gallstones and ulcerative colitis. Oral contraceptives and medication used to treat high blood pressure and tuberculosis might increase risk. Researchers found patients who underwent surgery for gallbladder removal reduced their risk of duct cancer significantly after 10 years, however.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, which becomes evident as a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Patients usually complain of back pain, which might be mild if only one pancreatic duct is infected. Nausea might lead to weight loss, and diarrhea typically occurs. The disease occurs more commonly in patients over the age of 60.

Diagnosis of pancreatic ductal cancer typically involves blood tests to determine liver functions. Ultrasound examination might show enlarged or blocked ducts. An abdominal scan might reveal if the cancer has attached to blood vessels and whether the patient represents a good candidate for surgery.

If surgery is not an option, therapy to manage the disease might include stents infused with radioactive chemicals to prolong life. External radiation might also be used, along with procedures to drain ducts and control pain. Chemotherapy shows little benefit in patients with inoperable cancer of the pancreas ducts.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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