Pancreatic cancer symptoms usually do not appear early in the disease. Hence the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer often happens when the disease has already progressed into the advanced stages. Though not a very common cancer, survival rates with pancreatic cancer are low. However, newer treatments from Western medicine have improved the survival rates. When combined with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cancer patients can hope to have better quality of life.
What causes pancreatic cancer?
As with all other cancers, pancreatic cancer occurs when the cells in the pancreas undergo changes that cause them to multiply uncontrollably. Though the exact cause of cancer is unknown, cigarette smoking, obesity, and exposure to chemical use by dry cleaners and metal workers increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Diabetes and chronic inflammation of the pancreas resulting from excessive alcohol consumption also link with pancreatic cancer.
Traditional Chinese Medicine regards all cancer cells as “toxic cells” in the body. The cause of pancreatic cancer significantly relates to the TCM spleen and stomach. Deficiency of zang-fu, qi, and blood causes it. The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are produced due to qi-stagnation, blood stasis, phlegm-coagulation, and toxin accumulation.
What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer usually produces symptoms only in the advanced stages. Many of the symptoms are also seen in other medical conditions and may cause a delay in the right diagnosis. If you have one or more of the symptoms below, check with your medical practitioner so that the cause can be found and treated on time. Pancreatic cancer symptoms include:
Jaundice refers to the yellowing of eyes and skin. Other symptoms associated with jaundice include dark-yellow coloured urine, light-coloured or greasy stools, and itchy skin.
Pain in abdomen or back
A common sign of pancreatic cancer, pain in the abdomen or back may occur when cancer spreads from the pancreas to the surrounding organs.
Weight loss or lack of appetite
Lack of appetite and weight loss are common symptoms of pancreatic cancer. They are also observed with other types of cancer.
Nausea and vomiting
If cancer presses on the stomach, the food may not easily pass through the digestive system. Apart from nausea and vomiting, it may cause pain, which tends to worsen after eating.
Enlargement of the gall bladder and liver
Pancreatic cancer can block the bile duct, causing bile to collect in the gall bladder, making it big. Pancreatic cancer usually spreads to the liver and can make it enlarged. A doctor may be able to feel the enlarged gall bladder and liver during a physical examination. They can alsoo view it on radiology tests.
Rarely, pancreatic cancer can also cause diabetes, as it kills the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Treating Pancreatic Cancer with Western Medicine
The first step in treating pancreatic cancer is surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible. The doctors may prescribe chemotherapy or radiotherapy before the surgery to reduce the size of cancer. Surgery is usually followed by radiotherapy or chemotherapy to remove whatever cancer cells may be remaining. However, both these treatments are very toxic to the body, and tend to harm the normal cells of the body along with the cancer cells. Newer treatments like immunotherapy help in a small proportion of patients with pancreatic cancer. These treatments attack only the cancer cells and are less harmful to the normal cells. However, they cause other side effects and toxicities.
How Can TCM Help Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms?
While TCM may not be the primary treatment modality for pancreatic cancer patients, it plays a supportive role in the management by improving the efficacy and reducing the toxicity of Western medicine treatments. In fact, TCM treatment, even during the later stages of cancer, allows patients to “live with cancer.” Studies have shown that TCM when administered along with western medicine may improve the chances of surviving pancreatic cancer.
TCM treatment aims to fight toxicities and enhance the elimination of cancer cells through chemotherapy and radiotherapy, as well as help them cope with it. Herbs like Prunella spike (Prunella vulgaris, Xia Ku Cao, 夏枯草), hedyotis (Hedyotis diffusa, Bai Hua She She Cao, 白花蛇舌草), barbed skullcap (Scutellaria barbata, Ban Zhi Lian, 半枝莲), Cremastrae psudobulbus, (Shan Ci Gu, 山慈菇), and white turmeric (Curcuma zsedoaria, E Zhu, 莪术)
To boost immunity
TCM remedies like ginseng boost the natural immunity of the body to fight cancer cells. As such, they complement the action of western medicine therapies. They also help with recovering from surgery and restoring the deficiencies in the body.
To boost immunity during chemotherapy and radiotherapy
TCM remedies containing gooseberry (醋栗culi) and herbs from the ginseng family help improve the blood and qi and increase blood cell counts, enabling doctors to continue their western medicine treatments. Antrodia Cinnamomea promotes liver health and also promotes vitality and improves immunity Chemotherapy and radiotherapy also cause inflammation in the mouth and epigastrium which can be treated with TCM medicines. Herbs like ginseng, Astragalus (Huang Qi, 黄芪), Atractylodes macrocephala (Bai Zhu, 白术) and Trametes versicolor (Yun Zhi, 云芝), etc. help to tonify the body, reinforcing the vital energy and consolidating the constitution.
For palliative care
In very late or advanced stages, western medicine may not help patients. Hence, doctors stop treatment or give palliative treatment to improve the patient’s quality of life rather than aiming to cure cancer. In such cases, TCM can help the patient considerably restore body balance, improve energy and vitality, and improve quality of life.
A TCM oncology physician is trained to walk with the patients through the whole journey of western medical treatment. They will individualise treatment for each patient based on the body constitution and syndrome differentiation, while considering the stage of diagnosis, symptoms, and clinical status of the patients. Hence, it is important to involve your TCM practitioner in all aspects of your cancer journey. In addition to advising the right supportive TCM therapies, a TCM practitioner will also be able to guide you on ways to prevent recurrence of cancer after remission.
Physician Chu I Ta, who specialises in TCM oncology, recommends the “3ERs” for people to fight cancer and maintain health– “Eat Right, Exercise Regularly and get Enough Rest.”
To maintain the health of the pancreas, he advises correcting bad habits such as smoking and drinking in moderation. Avoid or eat less red meat, bacon, grilled and cured meats, cured fish, and pickled vegetables. These foods contain a substance called nitrosamine, which can cause cancer. Also, reduce the intake of foods rich in fats and high levels of animal proteins. In their place, eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Be regular with your treatments and keep a check on your blood sugar levels.
For patients with a family history of cancer, it may be advisable to do regular medical check-ups and imaging tests, particularly after 40 years of age. Early detection of cancer can improve the survival and prognosis considerably. For patients who have already undergone treatment for pancreatic cancer, it is advisable to follow up with your physician every 2-3 months. Recurrences are common in pancreatic cancer and can be detected and treated early with regular consultations.
The quality of life we live is more important than the quantity of life destined for us. TCM therapies can work synergistically with western medicine to give us a better and longer life even with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
- SAGE Journals. Chinese herbal medicine effectively prolongs the overall survival of pancreatic cancer patients: A case series. [Accessed on 6 December 2021]
- Integrative Cancer Therapies. Complementary herbal Chinese medicine therapy improves survival of patients with pancreatic cancer in Taiwan: A nationwide population-based cohort study. [Accessed on 6 December 2021]
- Cleveland Clinic. Pancreatic cancer. [Accessed on 6 December 2021]
- American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer. [Accessed on 6 December 2021]