Common Pancreatic Diseases

Part of: Gut Health

The pancreas is a gland located behind the stomach. It is connected to the liver and small intestine. As a gland, it plays important roles in your gut health by:

  • Producing digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates, protein and fat in the small intestine.
  • Producing insulin to control the sugar level in your blood. Damage in the pancreas' ability to produce insulin can result in diabetes.

Learn more about the common diseases that affect the pancreas:

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Pancreatitis is the inflammation (swelling) of the pancreas. It can occur suddenly (acute pancreatitis) or gradually over years (chronic pancreatitis).

Both acute and chronic pancreatitis share similar symptoms. Symptoms tend to be more severe in acute pancreatitis. These symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Diarrhoea (in chronic pancreatitis)
  • Weight loss (especially in chronic pancreatitis)
  • Fever (sometimes in acute pancreatitis)

Learn more about pancreatitis and its treatments.

Pancreatic cancer is the growth of cancer cells in the tissues of the pancreas. Most cancers that occur in the pancreas affect the part of the pancreas that produces digestive enzymes.

It is difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer due to the:

  • Lack of distinct symptoms in the early stage of the cancer.
  • Difficulty of discovering tumours with a physical examination, due to the small size of the pancreas.

As a result, most patients with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed at the advanced stage. That is when patients show symptoms such as:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Indigestion
  • Jaundice

Learn more about pancreatic cancer and its treatment.

What is a pancreatic cyst?

A pancreatic cyst is a closed liquid sac that forms on or in the pancreas. There are many different types of pancreatic cysts – some are harmless, some may cause pancreas inflammation, and some can be cancerous or pre-cancerous (have the potential to turn cancerous if left untreated).

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cysts?

Pancreatic cysts tend to have few or no symptoms in the early stages. Most pancreatic cysts are discovered incidentally as part of a health screening, or when you undergo computerised tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the abdomen.

As the cyst develops, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen or back
  • Swelling in the upper abdomen
  • Pale stools or diarrhoea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tea-coloured urine
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Jaundice

How are pancreatic cysts treated?

Treatment for pancreatic cysts depends on the nature of the cysts:

  • Some non-cancerous cysts do not require treatment but should be monitored regularly by doctors.
  • Some non-cancerous cysts may need to be drained to prevent further swelling of the pancreas. The drainage may be performed:
  • Endoscopically to drain the pancreatic cyst internally. This procedure does not involve visible external scars or a drain tube.
  • Surgically via minimally invasive techniques. This procedure involves small cuts on your abdomen. Through these cuts, your surgeon will insert thin, flexible surgical tools into your body along with a special, tubular camera to view and drain the cysts.
  • Pre-cancerous cysts need to be removed together with part or all of the pancreas, to prevent the onset of pancreatic cancer. This procedure can be performed with open surgery or minimally invasive surgery using laparoscopic (keyhole) tools.
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