Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is a small organ that secretes juices essential to digestion into the small intestine, and it helps regulate blood sugar.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes, darkening of the urine, skin itching)
  • Upper abdominal pain (may radiate to the back)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • New onset diabetes
  • Unexplained blood clots

Unexplained weight loss is a key symptom for liver and pancreatic cancer. If you are losing weight for no apparent reason, you should see your doctor.

There are two basic types of pancreatic cancer. Cancers arising from pancreatic ductal cells are more common and have a poor prognosis if not detected early. Cancers arising from the islets of Langerhans region of the pancreas (pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors), are less common and have a more favorable prognosis. The islets of Langerhans of the pancreas secrete hormones that help to regulate the body’s endocrine system, including insulin and glucagon. 

The Pancreatic Cancer Program at the Indiana University Health Melvin & Bren Simon Cancer Center is unique in the Midwest region for its multidisciplinary and highly specialized process of evaluating and treating pancreatic cancer. This includes review of all diagnostic tests, careful pathology re-examination and weekly tumor board conferences, including world-recognized experts in pancreatic cancer, which are designed to enhance treatment plans for all patients referred to our center.

The Pancreatic Cancer Program at IU Health Melvin & Bren Simon Cancer Center evaluates more patients with pancreatic cancer and performs more pancreatic surgery than any other hospital healthcare provider in Indiana. We are a national leader for the number of pancreatic operations performed at a single hospital. 

Many diagnostic procedures used in the United States were pioneered at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center. Our pancreas program is best known for its expertise in:

  • Body imaging. Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning to locate the tumor and determine the stage of the cancer.
  • Endoscopic ultrasonography (EUS). An ultrasound technique that lets doctors examine the pancreas and surrounding tissue.
  • Biopsy sampling by fine-needle aspiration. Removing a tiny piece of the pancreas with a needle.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This technique uses an endoscope and an injection of a special contrast fluid. The combination allows doctors to see the pancreatic duct and bile duct, take a biopsy and collect pancreatic juice samples.

Additional diagnostic tools include:

  • Clinical examination. Checking for lumps or other irregularities in the body.
  • Blood testing. Analyzing blood samples.
  • Genetic counseling. Discussing personal and family medical history of certain gastrointestinal conditions—including pancreatic cancer—and the possibility of genetic testing.
  • Genetic testing. Identifying specific genetic factors that may put you at greater risk for developing pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

Pancreatic cancer care at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center is delivered by a multidisciplinary team, including:

  • Specialized pancreatic surgeons
  • Medical oncologists
  • Radiation oncologists
  • Interventional oncologists
  • Gastroenterologists
  • Radiologists
  • Pathologists

Our specialists work together to develop a customized treatment plan for you, considering the location and extent of your cancer, your general health and your life situation. Our Pancreatic Cancer Program is supported by a dedicated nurse coordinator to help you understand your comprehensive care plan.

Based on your needs and the most current therapies, treatment options for pancreatic cancer include one or more of the following:

  • Surgery. Removes the cancer. Pancreatic cancers can be surgically removed either laparoscopically or by standard surgery, depending on the size of the tumor and location within the pancreas.
  • Chemotherapy. Destroys cancer cells with drugs.
  • Radiation therapy. Destroys cancer cells or slows their growth with high energy, penetrating waves or particles.
  • Immunotherapy. Uses your immune system to fight cancer.

Radiation therapy treatments can include:

  • Computed tomography (CT) simulation. A radiation planning process using a CT scan to define tumor targets. Radiation oncologists use these scans to treat the tumor without affecting normal tissue.
  • Four-dimensional CT simulation. A CT simulation that also shows internal anatomy changes, such as changes in tumor location with the breathing cycle. This allows radiation oncologists to target the tumors more accurately even with movement and further protect normal tissues.
  • Image guided radiation therapy (IGRT). Uses precise radiographic imaging to precisely target tumors in daily radiation treatments without affecting normal tissue.
  • Cone-beam computed tomography (CBCT). An IGRT technique that uses a limited CT scan prior to a daily radiation treatment to verify targeted internal anatomy in three dimensions. This technique allows extreme precision in targeting radiation beams.
  • Three-dimensional conformal radiotherapy. Guided by a computer-generated, three-dimensional picture of the tumor, allowing the highest possible dose of radiation while sparing normal tissue.
  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). Advanced radiation that carefully delivers radiation to targeted areas and protects radiation-sensitive tissue that may be located nearby. This technique uses a computerized optimization algorithm that allows radiation oncologists to position the dose where it belongs.
  • Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). Special equipment delivers a large dose of radiation to a tumor without touching healthy tissue.

For patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, we offer excellent palliative care that brings you, your family and your doctors together to plan treatment. Whatever the diagnosis, palliative care can provide relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness. Our goal with palliative care is to improve quality of life for patients and families.

Pancreatic Cancer Research

The IU Health Simon Cancer Center is a leader in cancer care discoveries, as demonstrated by the quality and extent of our clinical trials for all stages of pancreatic cancer, which focus on improving the effectiveness of all of our treatments. Our patients are among the first to benefit from access to new treatment options for pancreatic cancer. Depending on certain qualifications, you may be eligible to enroll in our clinical research trials. You can find more information about our cancer research by visiting our website.

Additional Contact Information

To contact the Pancreatic Cancer Program at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center, please call Program Coordinator Dawn Passafiume at 317.948.4630 or email at dpassafi@iuhealth.org.