The pancreas is a fish-shaped organ that sits right behind the stomach and plays a vital role in human metabolism, the process by which energy is generated and life is sustained.
Over 95% of the gland constitutes the exocrine glands that release chemicals into the small-intestine so as to aid in digestion.
The remaining constitutes the endocrine glands that release important hormones directly into the bloodstream – hormones that balance the body’s sugar levels. Thus having inferred the significance of the organ in human life it’s evident that anomalies in the pancreas can be catastrophic.
Pancreatic Cancer – A prelude
Pancreatic cancer is a disease that is marked by exorbitant cell-growth in the pancreas. While some kinds of pancreatic cancers cause perturbation in the pancreas’ exocrine operations, the others interrupt its endocrine functions.
These two types of cancers are distinct from each other as their attributes such as symptoms and prognoses differ considerably.
The most common type is the adenocarcinoma, a cancer that is practically always fatal and develops in the pancreas’ exocrine glands.
Less rare and less deadly are the ‘islet-tumors’- cancers that develop in the endocrine glands.
Causes of pancreatic cancer
The efforts of scientists to determine the exact causes of pancreatic cancer remain inconclusive till-date. However numerous potential risk factors have been speculated and listed. But their authenticity is heretofore a matter of conjecture. They include:
The vulnerability to pancreatic cancer increases with ageing. Over 80% of the patients are affected between 60 and 80 years of age.
Carcinogens and Smoking Habit
Any agents directly involved in causing cancer by damaging the DNA are termed ‘carcinogens’.
A cigarette contains 69 different carcinogens in it and doubles the risk of acquiring pancreatic cancer!
Also it causes one-third of all pancreatic cancer cases in the world apart from being the only external/environmental cause of the disease.
QUITTING SMOKING CAN MINIMIZE YOUR SUSCEPTIBILITY TO PANCREATIC CANCER.
But it takes 10 years after quitting smoking for former smokers to reduce their risk to the same level as those who have never smoked.
It’s also proven that passive smoking can also increase the risk by 50%.
We know that everybody possesses two copies of the same gene, one from each of the parents. If either of the parents has cancer then his/her descendants inherit a mutant (damaged) copy of a gene from the affected parent and a normal copy of it from the healthy parent.
Due to variable circumstances for some of these descendants the normal copy of the gene in a cell present in the pancreas gets damaged as they age. Now what happens is that cell has two damaged copies of the gene, and consequently that cell becomes cancerous.
It doesn’t mean that everyone with an inherited disposition develops cancer. It’s just that they are more susceptible to the disease. To understand it better one can think of the situation with an analogy of humans having two eyes. Normally everybody has two healthy eyes. But for a person with genetic predisposition of cancer, it’s like having one normal eye and the other dysfunctional. If something goes wrong with the healthy eye too, then they are blind- problem arises.
About 10% of pancreatic cancers are caused by inherited mutations.
Other Medical Factors
Patients with stomach ulcers have 80% increased risk probably due to the presence of a harmful chemical called ‘nitrosamine’ caused by the bacteria living in the stomach of the ulcer patients. Having an operation for gastric-ulcer doubles this risk.
Inflammatory bowel sicknesses like Chron’s disease enlarge the risk of contracting pancreatic cancer by 75%.
50% increase of risk is caused by tooth and gum diseases.
1% of all the cases of pancreatic cancer are linked to chronic pancreatitis.
It’s a common misconception that diabetes causes pancreatic cancer. It’s actually the other way round. Growing cancer usually causes diabetes.
Traits and Habits
Men more than women and African-Americans more than whites are found to be afflicted by pancreatic cancer. Also people who are obese, who do not exercise regularly, whose diet contains less fruits and vegetables and more processed meat are more prone to pancreatic cancer.