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At UCLA, we understand how frightening a pancreatic cancer diagnosis can be. Our integrated clinic helps patients get pancreatic cancer treatment faster, shortening the time to surgery for eligible patients.
As a major research institution, UCLA offers pancreatic cancer treatment options and clinical trial opportunities not available at most facilities. Every year, our surgeons perform up to 150 pancreas cancer surgeries, including the Whipple procedure, making our team one of the most experienced in southern California. And we offer many clinical trials for pancreatic cancer, including phase 3 trials that are accepting new patients.
What Is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is a disease where pancreas cells grow uncontrollably. This growth can interfere with the function of the pancreas and surrounding organs like the bile duct, liver and gallbladder.
The pancreas is a small organ that sits behind the stomach. It releases hormones that help with digestion (especially fats) and controlling blood sugar.
Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is the most common type of pancreatic cancer. Adenocarcinomas are also called pancreatic exocrine tumors because they develop in exocrine cells. A different kind of pancreatic tumor develops in the endocrine cells of the pancreas. These tumors, which are much less common, are called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors.
What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?
Scientists don’t know for sure what causes pancreatic cancer. Risk factors include:
- Family history
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Inherited genetic disorders (associated with genes known as ATM, BRCA1, BRCA2 and PALB2)
- Type 2 diabetes
- Environmental exposures to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals
Pancreatic cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death in the U.S. Having pancreatic cancer may also increase your risk of developing other types of cancer. We provide genetic counseling and testing to help you understand your risks. Then your doctors can provide proactive monitoring and treatment. Read about cancer genetics.
What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?
Early pancreatic cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms. As cancer grows, however, patients may experience any of the following symptoms:
- Pain in the upper abdomen or back
- Jaundice, which may cause yellow skin and eyes, dark urine and itchiness
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
- Floating stools with a particularly bad odor, due to fats not being absorbed
- Enlarged liver or gallbladder, felt as a lump in your side
How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?
Our doctors diagnose pancreatic cancer with imaging tests and by analyzing biopsy samples in the lab. UCLA offers some of the most advanced diagnostic tools available for pancreatic cancers, including:
- Blood tests: Along with a physical exam, you’ll have blood tests to check for tumor markers, substances that a pancreatic tumor releases into the blood. Tests also check liver enzymes to show if cancer cells have spread to your liver.
- Minimally invasive interventional endoscopy: Interventional endoscopists can provide high-precision diagnosis and even pain relief during a simple outpatient procedure. Your doctor may use endoscopy to take a biopsy (tissue sample) of the tumor without surgery. Our center has the largest interventional endoscopy team in Los Angeles.
- Specialized CT and MRI scans: Advanced CT and MRI procedures provide clearer images than standard CT and MRI imaging available at other facilities. Your team can use specific methods for imaging the pancreas and bile duct. Learn about our advanced imaging and diagnosis.
- Genetic counseling: People with a family history of other cancers may also be at risk for pancreatic cancer. Because of this connection, our geneticists provide genetic counseling to help patients get diagnosed earlier.
Downstaging Pancreatic Cancer: Saving More Lives With Surgery
Tumors that can be removed surgically are called resectable tumors. But when many pancreatic tumors are diagnosed, they have already grown beyond the pancreas to involve local blood vessels or nearby organs. These tumors are generally considered unresectable, but UCLA has experience treating them with a combination of chemotherapy and surgery.
UCLA’s pancreatic tumor downstaging expertise
For more than 20 years, our team has helped more people with pancreatic cancer get potentially lifesaving surgery. Our approach involves extended chemotherapy to shrink locally advanced tumors to the point of being resectable. This process is called “downstaging.”
In more than 50% of downstaging cases, our surgeons successfully removed the smaller tumor through surgery. People who undergo downstaging treatment for pancreatic cancer at UCLA live twice as long as patients nationwide. Some have even been cured.
How Is Pancreatic Cancer Treated?
Today, many people survive 5 years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, even at advanced stages. New treatments and drugs offer a better chance for long-term survival. UCLA is at the forefront of these new therapies.
Pancreatic cancer treatment typically involves a combination of treatments such as:
Whipple procedure surgery
Surgeons at UCLA’s Agi Hirshberg Center for Pancreatic Diseases see more patients than most other hospitals in Southern California. Our surgeons perform more than 100 Whipple procedures annually, and our pancreatic cancer survival rates are among the best nationwide . Learn more about pancreatic cancer surgery.
Lab analysis of tumor samples enables your doctor to tailor drug combinations to an individual tumor. You may need chemotherapy before or after surgery, sometimes combined with radiation. Find out more about chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer at UCLA.
Radiation treatment uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Your team will target radiation beams to reach the tumor while minimizing the effects on healthy cells. Read about UCLA’s radiation oncology services.
Clinical trials for pancreatic cancer
Because doctors are still learning so much about treating pancreatic cancer, pancreatic cancer patients at any stage may be candidates for clinical trials. Clinical trials, which study new therapies for cancer, are a vital part of pancreatic cancer care.
UCLA’s Center for Pancreatic Disease is one of the nation’s leading institutions for pancreatic cancer research. You may be able to participate in our extensive clinical trials program for promising new drugs, which includes phase 3 trials (the last phase of testing before a drug is approved for widespread use). Learn more about clinical trials for pancreatic cancer at UCLA.
To schedule an appointment with the UCLA Gastrointestinal Oncology Program, please call the UCLA Cancer Hotline at 888-ONC-UCLA (888-662-8252) Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm, or our Physician Referral Service at 1-800-UCLA-MD1 (800-825-2631).