Pancreatic Cancer FAQs

Cancer Treatment Center in Orange County, CA

At OC CyberKnife, our mission is to help each of our patients overcome cancer, return to a normal lifestyle as quickly as possible, and thrive both during and after treatment. Our state-of-the-art Orange County cancer treatment center features some of the most advanced medical technologies and cancer treatments in the world, and our team of cancer doctors and radiation oncologists works with every patient to create a personalized treatment plan. We believe patient education is critical to successful treatment – so to help you better understand pancreatic cancer, we’ve pulled together some of the most commonly asked questions along with their answers.

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Now you have the knowledge – but while education is important, it’s not enough. Contact OC CyberKnife today to schedule a consultation and see how our radiation oncology center can help you create a treatment plan that works for you. Striving for nonsurgical, noninvasive treatments whenever possible, we’ll help you beat cancer, reclaim whole-body health, and get back to a normal lifestyle.

Answer :

The pancreas is a gland located in the abdomen near the stomach. It has an oblong, flattened shape and plays an important role in the digestive system. At roughly 6 inches long, the pancreas is shaped something like a fish: widest part of the pancreas is the head, the middle section is the body, and the thinnest part is the tail.

Answer :

The pancreas aids digestion by producing insulin and a variety of other important hormones. These hormones perform a variety of functions ranging from controlling blood sugar to helping the body digest and store food. In addition to hormones, the pancreas produces bile, which is released into the intestinal tract to aid in digestion.

Answer :

Cancer is an illness characterized by unhealthy cells multiplying uncontrollably, forming a growth called a tumor and destroying healthy tissue.

Answer :

Benign tumors are usually not cancerous and generally not life threatening, although they may cause serious complications in certain cases. Critically, the cells in a benign tumor won’t spread to nearby tissues and organs in the way that cancerous cells will.

Malignant tumors are cancerous, and they will continue to grow and spread into other tissues and parts of the body if left untreated. Malignant tumors are almost always serious and eventually can prove life threatening.

Answer :

Cancer spreads primarily through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. Cancer cells can break away from a malignant tumor, traveling through the blood vessels or the system of lymph nodes, and landing in other parts of the body to form tumors elsewhere.

Answer :

Most pancreatic cancers start in the bile ducts that carry bile from the pancreas.

Answer :

This is a rare form of pancreatic cancer that affects the cells that make insulin and other hormones.

Answer :

Metastatic pancreatic cancer refers to cancer that starts in the pancreas but travels to other parts of the body. For example, pancreatic cancer cells that spread to the liver and form a new tumor are still pancreatic cancer cells – the tumor is not liver cancer. This affects the diagnosis and treatment of the condition.

Answer :

No. Cancer cannot spread from person to person.

Answer :

Scientists still don’t understand the exact mechanisms that cause cancer, but research has identified a number of factors that put someone at a higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer. Risk factors include:

  • Cigarettes: Smoking cigarettes exposes the body to a wide variety of carcinogens (chemicals that cause cancer), so cigarette smoking is among the most significant risk factors for pancreatic cancer.
  • Age: Generally, risk for pancreatic cancer increases with age. More than 80% of cases develop in patients aged 60-80.
  • Race: While scientists still don’t understand why, African-Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than Caucasians.
  • Gender: Pancreatic cancer is more common for when than women, although this may be due to the increased prevalence of smoking among men.
  • Religious Background: Pancreatic cancer is more common in the Jewish population than the population at large. This may be due to an inherited genetic mutation common to some Jewish families.
  • Chronic Pancreatitis: Chronic pancreatitis, which is long-term pancreatic inflammation, increases the risk of cancer.
  • Diabetes: Diabetics tend to be at an increased risk for developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Peptic Ulcer Surgery: Patients who have part of their stomach removed for an ulcer surgery have an increased risk for pancreatic cancer.
  • Diet: Diets featuring high intake of meat, cholesterol, fried food, and nitrosamines may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, while diets high in fruits and vegetables may lower it. 
Answer :

If you feel you may be at risk for pancreatic cancer, talk with your doctor. Your doctor can determine the right course of action to work to prevent or detect any pancreatic cancer.

Answer :

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer often displays no symptoms in its early stages, making it hard to detect. However, once it becomes symptomatic, patients may experience any of the following:

  • Upper back pain or upper abdomen pain
  • Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
  • General weakness or fatigue
  • Lost appetite
  • Chronic nausea or vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss

It’s important to note that while pancreatic cancer can cause these symptoms, they can have a variety of other causes. If you experience any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor to arrange for testing and determine the true cause as quickly as possible.

Answer :

Because it’s often asymptomatic in early stages, it can prove difficult to detect and diagnose pancreatic cancer. That said, cancer doctors rely on a number of procedures to diagnose pancreatic cancer:

  • Lab Tests: Your doctor may take samples of your blood, urine, stool, or other bodily fluids to test for bilirubin, a substance that passes from the liver to the gallbladder to the intestine. If a tumor blocks these passageways, bilirubin levels can become elevated and potentially signal cancer.
  • CT Scan: Using an x-ray machine, a computer will take a series of detailed images of your pancreas. Doctors will examine these images to look for unusual growths or masses in the pancreas.
  • Ultrasonography: Using an ultrasound device, your doctor can take images of your pancreas and other internal organs, examining them to detect any tumors or abnormal growths.
  • Transabdominal Ultrasound: This refers to an ultrasound of the abdominal area.
  • Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS): In this procedure, a doctor will pass a thin, lighted tube called an endoscope through your mouth and stomach to the top of your small intestine. The endoscope contains a tiny ultrasound device that takes images of the pancreas and surrounding tissues.
  • Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): Your doctor will pass an endoscope down to the small intestine, then slip a small catheter through the endoscope into the bile and pancreatic ducts. After injecting a dye through the catheter, your doctor will take a series of xrays to show if the ducts are blocked or obstructed by a tumor or other abnormality.
  • Percutaneous Transhepatic Cholangiography (PTC): By injecting dye through a thin needle inserted through the skin into the liver, we can examine the bile ducts for any blockages that may come from tumors.
  • Biopsy: If a mass is identified, your doctor may take a small sample of the tissue. A pathologist will then examine the tissue under a microscope to look for cancerous cells.
Answer :

Staging is a classification system used to identify the extent and severity of cancer. Staging tells how large the tumor is, whether it has spread to the lymph nodes, and whether or not it has spread to far regions of the body. The higher the stage, the more serious the cancer.

Answer :

If you receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, it’s normal to experience a range of intense emotions that may make it hard to think clearly. You may find it helpful to make a list of questions before your appointment, or bring a close friend or relative to help you ask questions and take notes during the appointment.

Some questions you may want to ask during your first appointment include:

  • Have you ever treated a PC patient before?
  • If this is a surgeon, how many surgeries have you performed on PC patients?
  • What has the general outcome of those patients been?
  • Where were you trained? (medical school, residency)
  • Which surgeons did you study under?

At any point in the process, you also have a right to ask any of the following questions:

  • What is the diagnosis?
  • What treatments are recommended?
  • Are there other treatment options available that you do not provide? (i.e. protocol treatments, herbal therapy, touch therapy, other alternative therapies)
  • What are the benefits of each treatment?
  • What are the side effects of each treatment?
  • What are the medications being prescribed?
  • What are they for?
  • What are their side effects?
  • Are there any clinical drug trials I can participate in?
  • How should I expect to feel during the treatment(s)?
  • What are the risks of the treatment(s)?
  • Will my diet need to be changed or modified?
  • Will I need to take enzymes, vitamins, etc?

It’s also important to ask questions that help you understand the impact your condition and treatment will have on your life:

  • How will this affect my ability to work?
  • Can this treatment be done as an outpatient so that I can spend more time at home with family?
  • Will I have any physical limitations?
  • How will my current lifestyle be changed?

Finally, you should take some time to ask yourself some questions and honestly answer them honestly:

  • Does my doctor appear interested in answering my questions?
  • Or, does my doctor look annoyed when I ask questions, like I’m doubting their expertise or I am holding them up?
  • Do I feel that my doctor cares about my medical outcome?
  • If you are uncomfortable with the results of some of these questions, you may want to re­evaluate your choice of physician or get a second opinion.
Answer :

Unfortunately, current treatments have only limited success in treating pancreatic cancer for certain patients. For this reason, you may want to consider a clinical trial. These trials can give you access to medications not yet approved for the general market, which comes with an increased risk, but also may allow you access to a more powerful treatment.

Answer :

Palliative therapy is treatment intended to improve quality of life by controlling pain and other difficult problems caused by pancreatic cancer.

Answer :

Oncologists are doctors that specialize in treating cancer. Pancreatic cancer specialists includ surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists.

Answer :

While it may not be mandatory, getting a second opinion is almost always a good idea. Some insurance policies require patients to get a second opinion before starting treatment. You can get a second opinion using any of the following methods:

  • Call the Cancer Information Service at 1 (800) 4-CANCER. They can tell you about treatment facilities and care centers near you.
  • Contact your local medical society, hospital, or medical school. They can often connect you with specialists in your specific form of cancer.
  • Check the Official ABMS Directory of Board Certified Medical Specialists to find lists of doctors’ names along with their specialty and background.
  • Call the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) at 1 (866) ASK-ABMS (1­ (866) ­275-­2267) for information on board-certified doctors.
  • Call OC CyberKnife at (310) 473­-5121. We’ll help you schedule an appointment for a second opinion and find out if CyberKnife radiation therapy might be right for you.
Answer :

Available treatment options will vary from patient to patient depending on your specific case. Your doctor may recommend surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these treatments.

Answer :

Surgical treatment can be effective if the tumor is localized and has not yet spread significantly. However, if the tumor has spread to blood vessels, distant lymph nodes, or other organs, it may not be a viable option.

Answer :

The type of surgery will depend entirely on the location and type of the tumor. If you are considering surgery, you should ask your doctor a number of questions to better understand the treatment:

  • What kind of operation will I have?
  • How will I feel after the operation?
  • How will you treat my pain?
  • What other treatment will I need?
  • How long will I be in the hospital?
  • Will I need a feeding tube after surgery? Will I need a special diet?
  • What are the long­term effects?
  • When can I get back to my normal activities?
  • How often will I need checkups?
Answer :

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, is a technique using high energy radiation to kill cancerous cells. It may be used as a standalone treatment or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy. If you are considering radiation therapy, you should ask your doctor a number of questions to understand your situation and options:

  • Why do I need this treatment?
  • When will the treatments begin? When will they end?
  • How will I feel during therapy? Are there side effects?
  • What can I do to take care of myself during therapy? Are there certain foods that I should eat or avoid?
  • How will we know if the radiation is working?
  • Will I be able to continue my normal activities during treatment?
Answer :

Chemotherapy involves the use of prescription medications and drugs to target and kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may also be used to treat pain or other symptoms of the cancer. Chemotherapy drugs are usually delivered intravenously on an outpatient basis, although hospital stays may be necessary depending on the specific case.

To better understand chemotherapy, consider asking your doctor the following questions:

  • Why do I need this treatment?
  • What will it do?
  • What drugs will I be taking? How will they be given? Will I need to stay in the hospital?
  • Will the treatment cause side effects? What can I do about them?
  • How long will I be on this treatment?
Answer :

Cancer therapy can often damage healthy cells and tissues, so side effects are common for most patients. Side effects will vary greatly depending on your specific treatment, the types and stage of cancer you have, and your unique medical situation.

Side Effects from Surgery

Side effects from surgery depend on the specifics of the procedure itself, your general health, and a number of other factors. It’s common for patients to experience pain in the first week or so after surgery, which can be managed through medication.

Removing part or all of the pancreas can also make digestion difficult. Your doctor may prescribe a number of medications or a diet plan to help combat indigestion and ease and problematic symptoms. After your surgery, your doctor will carefully monitor your diet and weight to ensure your recovery is progressing properly.

Because the pancreas produces a number of important hormones, you may develop hormone deficiencies following surgery. Your doctor can prescribe hormone supplements to help treat this problem.

Side Effects from Radiation Therapy

It’s common for patients to feel tired or exhausted as radiation therapy goes on, so it’s important for patients to rest without becoming too sedentary. It’s also common for the skin where the radiation is delivered to get red, dry, or tender. Patients may also experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or other digestion issues. Side effects can be controlled through medication, and most side effects fade after treatment ends.

Side Effects from Chemotherapy

Side effects from chemotherapy vary greatly depending on the type of drug and dosage the patient receives. You may experience infections, easy bruising or bleeding, fatigue, reduced appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or persistent mouth sores. These side effects usually fade gradually during recovery periods between treatments or after treatment ends.

Answer :

Pain is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer, so pain management is an important part of treatment. You’ll work with your doctor to find a healthy pain management regimen that works for you.


Opioids are the strongest form of medical pain relievers available, and they’re often prescribed to manage pain from pancreatic cancer. In addition to opioids, your doctor may prescribe acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help manage pain. Your doctor may use any of the following drugs and procedures to manage your pain:

Types of Opioids Recommended for Pain of Pancreatic Cancer

  • codeine
  • hydrocodone (Vicodin, Vicoprofen)
  • hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • levorphanol (Levo­Dromoran)
  • morphine (Kadian, MSIR, MS Contin, Oramorph­SR)
  • oxycodone (Roxicodone, OxyIR, OxyContin, Percodan)
  • fentanyl (Duragesic, Actiq)
  • methadone (Dolophine)
  • tramadol (Ultram)
  • MSIR=morphine sulfate immediate release
  • MS Contin=morphine sulfate sustained release
  • Oramorph­SR=morphine sulfate sustained release
  • Roxicodone=oxycodone immediate release
  • OxyIR=oxycodone immediate release
  • OxyContin=oxycodone sustained release
  • Percodan=oxycodone and immediate release
  • *Opioids are available only by prescription

Non-opioid Medications Recommended for Pain from Pancreatic Cancer

 NSAIDS Antidepressants Anticonvulsants
Aspirin Amitriptyline Carbamazepine
Bufferin Elavil Tegretol
Ecotrin Nortriptyline Phenytoin
Trilisate Pamelor Dilatin
Dolobid Desipramine Valproate
Ibuprofen Norpramin Depakote
Motrin, Advil Doxepin Clonazepam
Ansaid Sinequan Klonopin
Orudis Imipramine Gebapetin
Aleve, Anaprox Tofranil Neurotin
Daypro Venlafaxine Lamotrigine
Lodine Effexor Lamictal
Voltaren Citalopram
Arthrotec Celexa
Acetaminophen, Tylenol
  • Radiation: High­ energy rays can help relieve pain by shrinking the tumor.
  • Nerve Block: The doctor may inject alcohol into the area around certain nerves in the abdomen to block the feeling of pain.
  • Surgery: A surgeon may cut certain nerves to help relieve pain. In addition, you might try methods such as massage, acupuncture, acupressure, or relaxation techniques to further manage your pain.

You may want to ask our doctor some questions to help you better understand your pain management options:

  • What can be done to relieve my pain?
  • What can we do if the medicine does not work?
  • What other options do I have for pain control?
  • Will the pain medicines have side effects?
  • What can be done to manage the side effects?
  • Will the treatment limit my activities (i.e., working, driving, etc.)?
Answer :

Living with a disease as serious as pancreatic cancer can be difficult, and many people find solace in emotional and practical support groups. These groups can give you a chance to share your experience and express your emotions, connect with other sufferers, and develop a supportive community to help you through the process. In addition to support groups, you can talk with your doctor or other members of your treatment team, as well as social workers or counselors to help you process your emotions and work through the process of treatment.

Answer :

As a field, medicine is always looking for better cures to any condition. Clinical trials are how we evaluate the efficacy of these cures and develop better cures over time. These studies are conducted on voluntary, informed participants.

Participating in a clinical trial can give you access to new, more advanced medicines and procedures that have not yet been approved for the general market. In some cases, this can mean access to a more effective treatment, but it may also carry more risk. That said, researchers take careful steps to protect patients and minimize the risk of the trial. You should talk with your doctor to see if any clinical trials are available to you and whether or not participating would be right for you.

Answer :

While alternative treatments are generally not backed up by the level of evidence and medical science as traditional treatments, they may be an option for certain patients if they do not interfere with your normal treatment. Talk with your doctor about alternative treatments and see if any make sense to incorporate into your treatment regimen.