Your pancreas is a pear-shaped organ located deep in your abdomen, between your stomach and spine. It produces enzymes which help break down your food and produces the hormones insulin and glucagon which control your blood sugar levels. 

While pancreatic cancer is rare, the disease usually goes undetected until symptoms occur when the disease is in its late stages. The diagnosis of this disease is particularly challenging given the location of the pancreas and its intricate role regulating your body.

Still there are new ways to manage and cure the disease, depending on its stage and location when diagnosed. Pancreatic cancer care includes precisely targeted therapies and new ways to perform surgeries and deliver chemotherapy and radiation. Our internationally renowned specialists have success with even some of the most complex cases of pancreatic cancer.

Our program features a highly experienced team of pancreatic cancer experts and other oncologists working together to treat each patient with a full range of personalized therapies including the following:

  • the Whipple procedure, the most common but also most complex pancreatic operation
  • Gamma Knife, precisely targeted radiation with fewer side effects
  • hyperthermic perioperative chemotherapy (HIPEC)
  • endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): advanced diagnostic techniques

The surgical oncology service at Washington Cancer Institute is known all over the world for its innovations and success with the treatment of cancers that have spread to the abdomen (peritoneal metastases). This is a combined treatment of cytoreductive surgery and hyperthermic perioperative chemotherapy (HIPEC), heated chemotherapy distributed inside of the abdomen after surgery, developed by the internationally recognized Dr. Paul Sugarbaker. 

Surgical oncologists come from all over the world on a regular basis to observe Dr. Sugarbaker’s surgical procedures and chemotherapy washing of the abdomen and pelvis. This process helps to maintain the benefits of surgical removal of cancerous tumors.

In addition to providing top care, our specialists are pursuing new and better ways to diagnose and treat pancreatic cancer. Their involvement with research offers access to the latest, most promising clinical trials — many of them not otherwise widely available.

We provide a full range of pancreatic cancer treatment, with our recommendations based on:

  • the cancer’s stage, the size of the tumor, how far it has grown into the wall of the pancreas and whether the cancer has spread to nearby tissues, lymph nodes or other parts of the body
  • whether the tumor is operable
  • whether the cancer is newly diagnosed or has returned (recurred)
  • your overall health

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Early pancreatic cancer frequently goes undetected because there aren’t usually any noticeable signs. But as the cancer grows, symptoms may develop that can include:

  • pain or discomfort in the upper part of your abdomen
  • yellowed skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • weakness and fatigue
  • appetite loss
  • nausea and vomiting
  • unexplained weight loss
  • dark urine
  • light- or clay-colored stools

Other conditions can cause these symptoms, too, so it’s important to see your MedStar Health doctor to determine a cause and get treatment if needed.

Pancreatic Cancer Risks

Researchers don’t know what causes most pancreatic cancers, but there are several risk factors that can increase your chance of developing the disease:


Cigarette smokers are twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as nonsmokers.


Overweight or obese people are at greater risk.


Almost all patients are over 45, and most are over 65.


The disease is more common in men.


African-Americans are more likely to get pancreatic cancer.

Chemical Exposure

Workplace chemicals like pesticides and dyes may increase your risk.

Certain Medical Conditions

These conditions also are tied to a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer:

  • diabetes (usually type 2)
  • chronic pancreatitis (long-term inflammation)
  • cirrhosis of the liver (scarring from hepatitis or alcohol)
  • family History: Pancreatic cancer tends to run in some families, with some of the genetic reasons identified and testable. In addition to pancreatic cancer and pancreatitis, some of these genetic syndromes are tied to breast and ovarian cancer (the BRCA2 gene), melanoma and colorectal cancer. 

At Washington Cancer Institute, you can receive endoscopic ultrasound (EUS), scans, blood tests and other state-of-the art screenings if you are at higher risk for pancreatic cancer. This process may potentially identify the disease when it’s still in its earliest and most treatable stages. 

To lower your risk of pancreatic cancer, don’t smoke and eat a healthy diet. Research shows eating lots of fruits and vegetables and limiting your consumption of pork and red or processed meat can help reduce your risk of pancreatic and other cancers.

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