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At UCLA, we understand how frightening a pancreatic cancer diagnosis can be. Our integrated clinic helps patients get pancreatic disease 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. Our surgeons operate on more than 100 patients each year, making our team one of the most experienced in southern California.
Pancreatic Cancer (Pancreatic adenocarcinoma)
Pancreatic cancer is a disease where normal pancreas cells grow uncontrollably. This growth can interfere with the function of the pancreas and surrounding organs like the bile duct, liver and gallbladder.
Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is the most common type of pancreatic cancer.
What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?
Scientists don’t know for certain what causes pancreatic cancer. However, risk factors for the disease include:
- Long-term alcohol abuse and cirrhosis
- Family history
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, so doctors can provide proactive monitoring and treatment.
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
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 upper back
- Yellow skin and eyes from jaundice, as well as dark urine
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
- Floating stools with a particularly bad odor, due to fats not being absorbed
It’s important to remember that these symptoms can also occur with other more common, less serious conditions. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should consult a doctor.
Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis at UCLA
Our doctors diagnose pancreatic cancer with imaging tests and by analyzing biopsy samples in the lab. People with a family history of other cancers may also be at risk for pancreatic cancer. Because of this connection, we also provide genetic counseling to help patients get diagnosed earlier.
UCLA offers some of the most advanced imaging and diagnosis available for pancreatic cancers, including:
- Minimally invasive interventional endoscopy: Interventional endoscopists can provide high-precision diagnosis and even pain relief during a simple outpatient procedure. Our center has the largest interventional endoscopy team in Los Angeles.
- Specialized CT (computerized tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): We use advanced CT and MRI procedures that provide clearer images than standard CT and MRI imaging available at other facilities. We have specialized procedures for imaging both the pancreas and bile duct.
Pancreatic Cancer Stages
Pancreatic cancer cases are divided into four main stages:
- Resectable: Surgeons consider a tumor resectable (removable) if it is located mainly in the pancreas and doesn’t involve critical blood vessels. Doctors diagnose approximately 15 to 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients at this stage.
- Borderline resectable: Tumors are borderline resectable if they have grown beyond the pancreas to partially involve the local blood vessels. The tumor may or may not impact lymph nodes, but it has not spread to distant areas of the body.
- Locally advanced: A tumor is locally advanced when there is more extensive involvement of critical arteries and veins or when it extends into nearby organs. Traditionally, doctors considered borderline resectable or locally advanced tumors unresectable, but UCLA has experience treating them with a combination of chemotherapy and surgery. Approximately 35 to 40 percent of patients receive diagnosis at this stage.
- Metastatic: When cancer has metastasized, or spread, to distant organs, doctors consider it inoperable. Approximately 45 to 55 percent of patients receive a diagnosis at this stage. Chemotherapy and radiation, along with other minimally invasive pain relief procedures, help advanced pancreatic patients live longer with less pain.
Downstaging Pancreatic Cancer: Saving More Lives with Surgery
When pancreatic cancer is borderline resectable or locally advanced, tumors are usually considered inoperable because of their involvement with nearby blood vessels or organs. However, UCLA has helped more of these patients get potentially life-saving surgery for over 20 years.
Our unique approach involves extended pre-operative chemotherapy to shrink locally advanced tumors to the point of being resectable, a process called “downstaging.” In over 50 percent of locally advanced or borderline resectable cases treated this way, our surgeons successfully removed the cancer, improving survival and even curing a number of patients.
Patients who undergo downstaging treatment at UCLA live twice as long as pancreatic cancer patients nationwide.
Pancreatic Cancer Treatments at UCLA
While a pancreatic cancer diagnosis can be scary, patients should know there are many 5-year survivors, even for those with advanced stages of the disease. New treatments and drugs offer a better chance for long-term survival, and there is hope for a cure.
Pancreatic cancer treatment typically involves some combination of surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation:
- Surgery: UCLA’s Center for Pancreatic Disease sees more surgery patients than most other hospitals in Southern California. Our pancreatic cancer survival rates are among the best nationwide. Learn more about pancreatic cancer surgery.
- Chemotherapy: Lab analysis of tumor samples lets us tailor drug combinations specifically to your tumor. We also offer an extensive clinical trials program for promising new drugs. Learn more about chemotherapy and clinical trials at UCLA.
- Radiation therapy: This treatment uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Read about UCLA’s radiation oncology services.
Learn more about pancreatic disease treatment at UCLA.