What Are Pancreatic Tumors?
The pancreas is a gland located in the abdomen, between the stomach and the spine. It makes enzymes that help digestion and hormones that control blood sugar levels. Pancreatic cancer begins when abnormal cells in the pancreas grow and divide out of control and form a tumor. Pancreatic cancer often spreads to the liver, abdominal wall, lungs, bones, and/or lymph nodes
Pancreatic tumors are either exocrine or neuroendocrine (endocrine) tumors. Their tumor type is based on the type of pancreas cell they start in. Knowing the type of tumor is important because each type acts differently and responds to different treatments.
Exocrine Tumors of the Pancreas
According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, about 93% of pancreatic cancers occur from exocrine tumors called adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinomas are a type of cancerous tumor that usually start in the mucus-secreting glands throughout the body and can develop in many different places. In pancreatic cancer, adenocarcinomas typically form in the pancreas ducts. Less often, the acinar cells, the cells that make the pancreatic enzymes that become released in the small intestine to that help your body digest food, can develop a rare, malignant tumor called acinar cell carcinoma (ACC).
Neuroendocrine Tumors of the Pancreas
Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors form in hormone-making cells (islet cells) of the pancreas. Tumors that form in islet cells are called islet cell tumors, pancreatic endocrine tumors, or pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (pancreatic NETs). Pancreatic NETs may be functional, make extra amounts of hormones for the body, or non-functional, and do not make extra hormones. However, most pancreatic NETs are functional tumors, and the different kinds of hormones they produce define their tumor type. Pancreatic NETs may be benign or malignant and often have a better prognosis.
Pancreatic cancer may cause only vague unexplained symptoms. Some common symptoms may include:
- Pain, usually in the abdomen or back
- Weight loss
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin, eyes, or both) with or without itching
- Loss of appetite
- Changes in stool
- Pancreatitis (swelling of the pancreas)
- Recent-onset diabetes
Because these symptoms may overlap with those of other conditions, it is important to get the correct diagnosis to find the right treatment. Make an appointment with your primary care physician if you are experiencing persistent signs and symptoms that concern you.
Pancreatic cancer can be hard to find and diagnose. The pancreas is located deep in the abdomen, so physicians usually cannot see or feel the tumor during a physical exam. Also, pancreatic cancer symptoms are not always obvious and usually develop over time. A pancreatic tumor can only be seen on an imaging study such as a computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). Then, the physician takes a sample of the tumor tissue to figure out the exact diagnosis. Physicians may use several tests to make a diagnosis, but there is no standard test to diagnose pancreatic cancer, which makes diagnosis even more complicated.
Pancreatic cancer treatment depends on the stage of the disease and the patient’s general health. Standard treatments are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
At Austin CyberKnife, we treat pancreatic tumors with the CyberKnife Radiosurgery System®. The CyberKnife System painlessly delivers precise beams of radiation to pancreatic tumors without requiring incisions, hospitalization, or a long recovery time. It is a treatment technique in which high-dose radiation is delivered to the tumor from a linear accelerator mounted on a highly maneuverable robotic arm. Hundreds of different angles enable the radiation to be contoured to the shape of the tumor, resulting in treatment aimed directly at the tumor, avoiding nearby healthy anatomy.
Before treatment, physicians implant between three to five small metal markers known as fiducials in or near the tumor that enable the CyberKnife to pinpoint the tumor location throughout treatment. Implanting the markers is an outpatient procedure that takes about an hour. About a week later, patients are fitted with a custom body mold made of soft material that they lie on during treatments. The fitting process is easy and painless. Patients then undergo a CT scan that assists in developing a customized treatment plan.
- Outpatient procedure, no anesthesia or hospitalization required
- Noninvasive, no incisions needed
- Typically pain-free treatment
- Reaches pancreatic tumors from virtually unlimited directions with robotic mobility
- Targets individual pancreatic tumors with pinpoint accuracy
- Enables clinicians to maximize and conform the dose to the pancreatic tumor
- Constantly corrects for patient/tumor movement throughout treatment, ensuring radiation beams are always locked on tumor during treatment
- Minimal radiation exposure to healthy tissue surrounding the pancreatic tumor
- Little to no recovery time and almost immediate return to your normal daily activities
- Minimal, if any, side effects due to pinpoint precision of high-dose radiation delivery