Catching Pancreatic & Liver Cancer Early

Organization: Author:
Ronald Wolf, M.D., liver and pancreatic surgeon, Complex Pancreatic & Liver Cancer Program, MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, Long Beach Medical Center

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 55,440 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and approximately 42,220 will be diagnosed with liver cancer in 2018.

Pancreatic cancer forms in the tissue of the pancreas, an organ in the digestive system located in the abdomen. Endocrine cells in the pancreas create enzymes used to digest fats and proteins, and exocrine glands create insulin and hormones to help balance the amount of sugar in the blood. Cancer is more common in the exocrine cells and most tumors in this area are called adenocarcinomas.

Pancreatic and liver cancers are often hard to find, which results in late detection. Often times, because it’s found in a later stage, pancreatic cancer may have already spread to the liver.

However, there are several types of liver cancer:

  • Primary liver cancer - Cancer that begins in the tissue of the liver, an organ in the digestive system.
  • Secondary liver cancer - Cancer from the colon, lung, breast or other parts of the body spreads to the liver.
  • Non-cancerous (benign) tumors - Tumors also may form in the liver.

Risk Factors & Prevention for Pancreatic Cancer

You are at a greater risk for pancreatic cancer risk if you:

  • Are over the age of 70
  • Are male
  • Are African-American
  • Smoke or are exposed to smoke
  • Are overweight
  • Have diabetes, chronic pancreatitis or cirrhosis of the liver
  • Have a family history of pancreatic cancer or inherited certain mutations in genes that can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer
  • Are exposed to chemicals such as pesticides and dyes

The cause of most cases of pancreatic cancer is unknown. Maintaining a healthy weight and diet, getting plenty of exercise and not smoking is recommended.

Risk Factors & Prevention for Liver Cancer

You are at a greater risk for liver cancer risk if you:

  • Are male
  • Are over the age of 40
  • Are African-American, Asian or Polynesian
  • Suffer from certain types of liver diseases, such as hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV) or cirrhosis
  • Are exposed to aflatoxins – a mold found in food such as peanuts, corn and soybeans
  • Are diabetic

In many cases, the cause of liver cancer is unknown. By avoiding hepatitis infections, moldy grains, limiting alcohol use and not smoking you can help reduce your risk for liver cancer.

Know Your Body

While other cancers affecting the digestive system, such as colorectal cancer, have a standard diagnostic screening, pancreatic and liver cancer do not. It’s important to pay attention to your body and talk to your doctor if you notice any of the following signs.

Pancreatic cancer:

  • Pain (usually in the abdomen or back)
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • New-onset diabetes
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
    • When pancreatic cancer spreads, it often goes to the liver. This can lead to jaundice.

Liver cancer:

  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Feeling very full after a small meal
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Mass under the ribs on either side
  • Pain in the abdomen or near the right shoulder blade
  • Swelling or fluid build-up in the abdomen
  • Itching
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)

The MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute has a Complex Pancreatic & Liver Cancer Program that provides advanced diagnostic and treatment options for patients with pancreatic or liver cancer, including interventional endoscopy, which is an advanced level of gastrointestinal diagnostic and therapeutic care that focuses on providing patients with safe and effective alternatives to invasive diagnostic testing or surgery.

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