Before you learn about pancreatic tumors, you must understand a little about the pancreas itself. It is an organ that exists and functions in the endocrine and digestive systems. One way of describing the pancreas is that it is exocrine. This means that it operates as part of the digestive system and secretes digestive enzymes. As part of the endocrine system, it secretes very important hormones which include somatostatin, glucagon, and insulin. Chances are you have heard of insulin, which regulates the body’s blood sugar levels. A pancreas that does not produce insulin results in the condition diabetes mellitus. Glucagon also helps regulate sugars as well as salts. So now that you know a little about the pancreas, it is important to know that pancreatic tumors arise from the cells that produce the aforementioned hormones.
Not every tumor of the pancreas is malignant, or cancerous. One major pancreatic tumor distinction is whether or not they secrete hormones. A “functioning” tumor is one that does secrete hormones, and a “nonfunctioning” tumor is one that does not secret hormones. Obviously, no one wants to deal with a cancerous tumor, but a noncancerous tumor can also cause problems. Pancreatic tumors can grow and block the biliary tract and small intestine. Additionally, pancreatic tumors that are functioning can lead to different kinds of syndromes.
The survival rates for malignant tumors of the pancreas are low, so much research has taken place to try to find a way to improve survival rates and increase life expectancy. Clinical trial drugs, such as Bevacizumab, have been created to help block tumor growth in various ways. One way is that it may prevent growth by stopping blood flow to the tumor itself.
As has already been stated, patients with cancer of the pancreas have a low survival rate. According to numbers put forth by the American Cancer Society, the survival rate for one year is 20%, while the survival rate for five years is 4%. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to test for and detect, and this is one of the major reasons the rates are so low. Once it is detected, it is sometimes difficult to treat surgically, and this is especially true with metastatic cancer. Only around 10% of pancreatic tumors are confined to the pancreas.
There are several different types of pancreatic tumors. One type is an insulinoma, and this type secretes insulin which results in lowered blood sugar. About 10% of insulinomas are malignant. A gastrinoma is another type, and as suggested by the name, secretes extra gastrin. This can lead to peptic ulcers due to increased enzymes and acid that is produced. A third type mentioned here is the viopma. This is a rare tumor that secretes vasoactive intestinal peptide. Up to around 75% of these tumors are malignant. A glucagonoma is a secreting tumor that actually increases blood sugar and results in a rash. They grow more slowly than other tumors, but about 80% of them are malignant.