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Tumours of the pancreas 

Tumours of the pancreas
Tumours of the pancreas

James R.A. Skipworth

, and Stephen P. Pereira

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date: 28 February 2021

Pancreatic cancer, most commonly in the form of a solid ductal adenocarcinoma, accounts for 3% of all cancers but ranks in the top five leading causes of cancer deaths in most developed countries, reflecting the fact that it has a very poor prognosis (median survival 6–9 months). It is a disease of older age (85% of patients >65 years), and commoner in smokers.

Most patients present with locally advanced or metastatic disease, often with obstructive jaundice. Pain is unusual in early disease, but when present is characteristically described as ‘gnawing’, ever present, and frequently radiating into the back. Weight loss is commonly due to anorexia as a result of jaundice or pain, but can occasionally be the only presenting symptom.

Serum biochemistry will typically show elevated bilirubin and a cholestatic picture of liver enzymes, with particular elevation of alkaline phosphatase and γ‎-glutamyl transferase. Transabdominal ultrasonography is usually the primary investigation in a patient with jaundice and can detect pancreatic tumours greater than 2 cm in size or hepatic metastases with a diagnostic accuracy of 75%, but identifies smaller tumours much less reliably. The essential investigations for the diagnosis and staging of pancreatic cancer are contrast-phased CT scan and occasionally MRI.

The only curative treatment for pancreatic cancer is surgical excision. This is technically feasible in up to 20% patients at presentation, but even after careful selection almost 40% of these will have positive microscopic resection margins, and overall postoperative survival is only around 10% at 5 years, the remainder experiencing metastatic disease in the peritoneum, liver, or lungs. Adjuvant chemotherapy with gemcitabine can double the 5-year survival rate. Palliative management may require biliary stenting for jaundice, duodenal stenting (or surgical bypass) for gastric outlet obstruction, pain control, and palliative chemotherapy.

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