When cancer that first formed in the pancreas spreads to other parts of the body, doctors classify it as stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The pancreas is an organ that supports the digestive system and helps the body to regulate blood sugar.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect at an early stage because the pancreas is located deep in the body. People usually have no symptoms until the tumor has grown very large or the cancer has spread to other organs. According to research conducted in 2015, approximately 53% of people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed when the cancer is at stage 4.
Doctors are not able to cure stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Treatment aims to prolong the person’s life, improve their quality of life, and manage their symptoms. Knowing what to expect can help people and loved ones cope. In this article, we describe the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and describe the 4 stages.
What are the 4 stages of pancreatic cancer?
Talking to a therapist can help bear the emotional pressure of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. When diagnosing pancreatic cancer, the doctor aims to identify how much cancer is in the body and whether it has spread beyond of the pancreas. This process, called staging, helps indicate the severity of the cancer and the best treatments.
The 4 stages of pancreatic cancer are:
Stage 0: The cancer is confined to the top layer of pancreatic duct cells.
Stage 1: The cancer is confined to cells in the pancreas and the tumor is no larger than 4 centimeters.
Stage 2: The tumor may be larger. Or the cancer may have spread to three lymph nodes but not to any other organs.
Stage 3: The cancer can grow outside the pancreas, into nearby blood vessels. It may also have spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage 4: The cancer has spread to distant sites, such as the liver or lungs.
When cancer spreads to distant organs, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells are always pancreatic cells, even if they grow on other organs.
Pancreatic cancer can metastasize to many places, including:
– the stomach
– the diaphragm
– the adrenal glands
– the peritoneum, the tissue that lines the abdomen.
Sometimes doctors can only identify the stage of the cancer by performing surgery.
To determine a person’s future prospects, doctors consider the stage of the cancer and how abnormal the cancer cells are. They also take into account the general state of health of the person. When the cancer has spread to other organs, surgeons are unable to remove or cure it. Stage 4 cancer treatments focus on managing pain and other symptoms to improve quality of life.
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to detect at an early stage because it usually does not cause symptoms at this stage. At a more advanced stage, the cancer can interrupt the functioning of the gallbladder, liver and bile ducts. This can lead to :
– itchy skin
– dark urine
– pale stools
– abdominal pain
– jaundice, ie yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.
Other non-specific symptoms may include
– unexplained weight loss
– a lack of appetite or a feeling of quick satiety after eating
– sudden onset of type 2 diabetes that is difficult to control.
de la Cruz, MSD, & Young, AP (2014). Diagnosis and management of pancreatic cancer.
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