An Overview of the Pancreas and Pancreatic Tumors

Pancreatic tumors, as their name states, occur in the pancreas. They are growths or masses of abnormal cells that occur on various parts of the pancreas. In the mind of most people, the pancreas is a little-understood organ. But to understand pancreatic tumors, one must understand the affected organ. A relatively small structure about 6 to 10 inches in length, the pancreas sits deep within the upper abdomen, just behind the stomach. It is also very close to the upper part of the small intestine called the duodenum. A duct running from the pancreas connects to and empties in the duodenum.

The pancreas is composed of three parts: the head, which touches the duodenum; the body; and the tail, which stretches toward the spleen. Tumors can grow in any part of the pancreas. The location of the tumor impacts the way doctors will treat the growth. If the tumor is non-cancerous and located in the head of the pancreas, doctors will most likely perform a pancreatic head resection. Here only the pancreas's head is removed. But if the tumor is cancerous, they will perform a Whipple operation. This is more drastic than the resection: the head of the pancreas, part of the bile duct, the gallbladder, and the duodenum are removed. When the tumor is in the tail, a distal pancreatectomy is standard. This involves the removal of the bottom section of the pancreas.

The pancreatic tumor's location also slightly affects the symptoms a person will display. However, most cause similar side effects. Common symptoms are abdominal pain, loss of weight and appetite, jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes related to bile buildup) if the tumor is at the pancreas head, depression, and spontaneous blood clotting in veins (called Trouseau's sign ). Many of these are also signs of a gallbladder stone or infection, and only medical tests can tell for certain if pancreatic tumors are the symptoms' cause.

The pancreas has many functions, and the symptoms of pancreatic tumors arise from the functions the growth interferes with. The pancreas produces a hormone called insulin. This hormone controls how much sugar is in the blood. This is a vital role, for any extreme variations in sugar levels are very dangerous. A pancreatic tumor that grows in and destroys the insulin-produce cells, called islet cells, can lead to diabetes mellitus or its symptoms. The pancreas also makes glucagon, which works with insulin to control blood sugar levels.

In addition to insulin and glucagon, the pancreas creates substances called enzymes that help break down fats, starch, and protein into states the body can use. If a tumor interferes with the secretion of these enzymes, food is not digested properly. This leads to weight loss and even starvation.

According to research done for the site – pancreatic tumors affect over 30,000 people in the US every year, and the vast majority of growths – 85-90% – are cancerous. But early detection can lead to increased survival rates and a better over all prognosis. Thus, it is very important to be aware of the pancreas's purpose and the symptoms that can signal a tumor growth. If you believe you may have a pancreatic tumor, see your doctor as soon as possible.