For the media

Can pancreatitis become pancreatic cancer?

By The Health News Team | January 11, 2024
Woman experiencing stomach pain

Described as resembling everything from a pear to a tadpole, the pancreas is an oddly shaped gland buried deep inside the abdomen. It can be found behind the stomach and nestled among the liver, spleen and gallbladder.

The pancreas helps with the digestion of food and controls how it is used for energy. The exocrine cells of the pancreas produce enzymes that aid in digestion and make hormones, including insulin and glucagon, to help maintain blood sugar levels.

However, pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, is on the rise. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases reports about 275,000 hospital stays for acute pancreatitis occur in the U.S. each year. Most commonly caused by alcohol use, pancreatitis can also be due to gallstones, certain types of medications and pancreatic cancer.

“Pancreatitis can be mild, moderate or severe,” says Dr. Mohammed Saadi, a board-certified gastroenterologist with Sharp Community Medical Group. “It is a serious condition that can lead to pancreatic gland necrosis, or ‘dead pancreas,’ which can lead to diabetes and malabsorption.”

Certain populations are at greater risk of pancreatitis, including men, African Americans and people with a family history of pancreatitis or a personal or family history of gallstones. However, anyone can have pancreatitis.

The most common symptom of pancreatitis is upper- or mid-abdominal pain that radiates to the back or sides. “The pain is usually sharp in nature and associated with nausea and vomiting,” Dr. Saadi says.

According to Dr. Saadi, pancreatitis is a major cause of death, disability and reduced quality of life. Pain due to pancreatitis can be complex and unpredictable, and it can range from severe and continuous to nonexistent. Research has found that patients with continuous patterns of pain have more severe pain, use more opioids and nerve pain medications, and have a lower quality of life.

“At Sharp Grossmont Hospital, we offer less invasive ways to manage pancreatitis pain using endoscopic ultrasound technology,” Dr. Saadi says.

The relationship between pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer

While pancreatitis itself is of great concern, it can also be the first sign of pancreatic cancer. Any episode of pancreatitis should be taken seriously. Dr. Saadi says. This type of cancer is often detected late, spreads rapidly, and has a poor prognosis.

Increased risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • Smoking

  • Diabetes

  • Chronic pancreatitis or inflammation of the pancreas

  • Family history of pancreatic cancer

  • Certain genetic syndromes

  • Obesity

“Recurrent episodes of acute pancreatitis can lead to chronic pancreatitis, which in turn, can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Saadi says. “Any patient with symptoms of pancreatic cancer, such as abdominal pain, weight loss or unexplained diarrhea, should visit with a gastroenterologist with advanced pancreatic training to be evaluated for pancreatic cancer and pancreatitis.”

Dr. Saadi recommends pancreatic cancer screening in high-risk individuals begins at age 50, or 10 years prior to the age of the earliest pancreatic cancer in the family. For those with three or more family members with a history of pancreatitis, screenings for pancreatic cancer should be offered. He also recommends screenings begin at age 30 to 35 for people with Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, a rare disorder in which growths form in the intestines, because they are at greater risk of developing certain cancers.

“Take care of your digestive problems, especially if you see a pattern of symptoms,” Dr. Saadi says. “Enjoying a life without smoking, better dietary habits and moderate exercise can improve your mood, your heart, your digestive system and your overall health.”

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