Pancreas Health

What does my pancreas do?

Located behind the stomach, the pancreas is a small gland connected to the liver and small intestine, which is responsible for producing enzymes that break down cholesterol, proteins and fats in the small intestine, as well as producing insulin to control the blood sugar level. Inability of the pancreas to produce insulin is can lead to diabetes.

Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas. Causes of the condition include:

  • Gallstones
  • Heavy alcohol consumption over years
  • Trauma
  • Infection
  • High levels of blood fats or blood calcium
  • Hereditary and genetic causes
  • Tumours

There are two types of pancreatitis - acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis is a sudden onset of pancreatic inflammation mostly caused by gallstones and is often accompanied by severe abdominal pain, whereas chronic pancreatitis tends to develop over the years as gradual growing inflammation damages the pancreas. Mostly caused by alcohol abuse, chronic pancreatitis is more common in men than women. In general, acute and chronic pancreatitis share similar symptoms. The only difference is that acute inflammation usually has more severe symptoms while development of symptoms of chronic pancreatitis are more gradual. 

Symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Weight loss, especially in chronic pancreatitis
  • Jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes)
  • Fever Nausea and giddiness

Pancreatitis can lead to:

  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Chronic pancreatitis as a result of acute pancreatitis
  • Type 2 diabetes

There are different treatment options depending on the type and severity of pancreatitis. The obstruction should be removed if the condition is caused by gallstones or other forms of blockage in the bile and pancreatic ducts. In some extreme cases, the entire pancreas, together with the bile ducts and gallstones, would be removed in a total pancreatectomy.

​Pancreatic Cancer

While there are a few types of cancer that can occur in the pancreas, the majority of cases involves cancer cells affecting the part of the pancreas that produces digestive enzymes.

There are no known causes of pancreatic cancer, but studies have identified some risk factors that can contribute to pancreatic cancer:

  • Regular intake of soft drinks
  • People over the age of 60
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Diabetic patients
  • People who are overweight have a slightly higher risk in suffering from pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer usually does not have apparent symptoms in the early stage. In addition, the small size of the pancreas means that tumours can be hard to discover with a physical examination. Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often diagnosed in the advanced stage. A comprehensive health screening that includes a CT scan of the abdomen can help to diagnose pancreatic cancer in the early stages. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer that one can look out for include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Indigestion
  • Jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes)

Treatment of pancreatic cancer depends on how far the cancer has progressed. In cases where the cancer is discovered early and confined to the head of the pancreas, a procedure known as the Whipple procedure can be taken to remove the affected part of the pancreas and reattach the remaining part with the bile duct and intestine. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also be used to shrink the cancer, reduce symptoms and prolong life.

Pancreatic Cyst

A pancreatic cyst is a closed liquid sac formed on or in the pancreas, often in reaction to inflammation. While many cysts are benign and will only inflame the pancreas, some cysts can be cancerous or precancerous, which means that they can turn cancerous if left untreated.

Pancreatic cysts tend to have little or no symptoms in the early stage. A majority of pancreatic cysts are discovered incidentally as part of health screening, or during CT and MRI scans of the abdomen. As the cyst develops, symptoms below may be experienced:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen or back
  • Jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes)
  • Tea-coloured urine
  • Pale stools or diarrhoea
  • Swelling in the upper abdomen
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea and vomitting

Non-cancerous cysts can be observed or treated using minimally invasive techniques.

In case of precancerous cysts, part or all of the pancreas would be removed to prevent laparoscopically. Laparoscopic surgery is a form of minimally invasive surgery, which can shorten the recovery time and lessen pain during recovery as it only involves small cuts to insert the laparoscopic tools, as opposed to traditional open surgery. The risk of infection can also be reduced as the abdomen is not exposed during surgery.

Related Specialties