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Pancreatic Cancer: The Basics

By at January 23, 2012 | 7:50 am | Print

We may not be aware of it, but the human body is a complicated system composed of many different complex organ tissues. These organ tissues work together as a team to keep our bodies functioning. Organ tissues are made of up of trillions of cells. These cells form groups and work together as a unit to keep us going. Our cells have to go through cycles to keep the cell growth in check. Any error in the cycle that grows past a checkpoint can prove to be devastating; leading to an often incurable disease known as cancer. There are many different types of cancers, but the deadliest of these results from an error in cells that make up the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is an extremely serious and life-threatening disease. It often does not show any symptoms at first and by the time it is found, it is advanced to a point that is nearly impossible to reverse. But before learning about the devastating effects of cancer, it is important to learn how complex our bodies are and how most cancers begin.

The human body is a complex system in which similar cells come together to form tissues. The similar cells that are grouped in the same tissue all carry out a specialized function and make up organ tissues that work together to keep the body functioning. There are four primary tissues in the human body: the epithelial tissue, connective tissue, muscle tissue, and nerve tissue. The cells in the epithelial tissue are packed tightly together and form continuous sheets. These sheets function as linings in organs. For example, it is found on the inside of the stomach and the small intestine. The second primary tissue is the connective tissue. The inner layers of skin, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, bone, and fat tissue are all made up of connective tissue. Connective tissue gives structure to the body. Muscle tissue is another primary tissue in the body. Muscle tissue is specialized because it can contract. It contains two important proteins, actin and myosin. These two proteins continuously slide past one another to provide constant movement. The final primary tissue in the body is nerve tissue. Nerve tissue has the capability of producing electrical signals as well as carrying them out to the body. These electrical signals travel through the spinal cord and to the rest of the body. These four primary organ tissues must work collectively to keep the body functioning properly (Carpi). The cells in these tissues must continually divide and grow in order to maintain a healthy system. But sometimes, cells fail in their rhythm and do not divide the way they are designed to.

Our system is made up of trillions of cells; the basic units of life. Each cell on its own is a complicated organism that goes through a regular cycle. During this cycle, the cell divides and results in two identical cells. There are four parts to the cell cycle: G1 phase, S phase, G2 phase, and finally Mitosis. The parent cell starts off in the G1 phase. At this point the two chromosomes in the cell each carry one strand of DNA. The cell then goes on to the S phase. During the S phase, the cell doubles the amount of DNA. After the DNA is replicated the cell goes into the G2 phase. During this phase, the cells grow and prepare to divide in the final step of the cycle. In the last stage of the cell cycle, Mitosis, the cell DNA gets divided into two separate nuclei. The cell then splits into two daughter cells through the process of cytokinesis (www.staff.jccc.net). This process occurs frequently and with great accuracy. A small error in this process can sometimes go undetected and not cause any harm, but in some cases it can prove to be deadly.

One of the deadliest diseases that results from an error in the cell cycle is cancer. During DNA replication, the DNA can be damaged. In normal cells, the damaged DNA is either repaired or the cell is programmed to die. If the material is not repaired and the cell does not die, it continues to divide as a damaged or mutated cell and eventually leads to a group of cells that are different from normal cells. A group of these abnormal cells is what we commonly refer to as a tumor (www.cancer.org).

Pancreatic cancer starts in the tissue of the pancreas. The pancreas is a very important organ because of the functions that it carries out. It sends enzymes that facilitate digestion and it also sends hormones that help regulate sugar and metabolism (www.mayoclinic.com). Pancreatic cancer spreads rapidly. It is a severe cancer because by the time it is found, it is often far advanced in its stages. It does not show any symptoms until it is advanced. But when symptoms do show up they are usually abdominal pain that can radiate to the back, yellowing of the skin and the whites of eyes, loss of appetite, weight loss, depression, and blood clots (www.mayoclinic.com). Scientists across the globe argue about whether or not pancreatic cancer spreads quickly or rather slowly. A study done by Vogelstein and his colleagues suggests that cancer of the pancreas develops gradually. A companion study also finds strange chromosomal rearrangements. Some researchers argued and said that pancreatic cancer is very fast paced; it spreads quickly and is very aggressive. But others said that the ability of pancreatic cancer to remain out of sight for so long is the main cause of its deadliness. Vogelstein was delighted to find out that it takes a long time for pancreatic cancer to develop (Seppa).

The causes of pancreatic cancer remain unclear, but scientists have come up with potential risk factors. The first potential risk factor is genes. There are several genes responsible in the control of the cell division process. The first are oncogenes and these genes tell the cell when to divide. Tumor suppressor genes tell the cell when not to divide. Suicide genes tell cells to undergo cell death if something goes wrong. And finally DNA-repair genes direct cells to repair damaged DNA. There are two different ways that genes can trigger the overgrowth of cancerous cells. The first way is through gene mutation (or alteration). When genes mutate, they lose their normal function and cannot control the cell in a regular manner. These mutations make our cells unable to correct the DNA damage and the cell is incapable of committing suicide. Mutations that restrain the oncogenes and the tumor suppressor genes lead to uncontrollable cell growth and eventually lead to cancer (Medical News Today). Another way that genes trigger cancer is by inheriting a genetic mutation. Once these genetic mutations are inherited they can cause severe cancers. Even though it can be common to inherit a genetic mutation from a parent, only about 10% of pancreatic cancers are actually caused by inherited gene mutations (Medical News Today).

There are several other factors that can contribute to the cause of cancer. One of these potential risk factors are carcinogens. These are substances that are directly responsible for damaging DNA and also promoting and aiding cancer. When we are exposed to carcinogens, free radicals are formed and these damage our cells and also affect their ability to function normally, ultimately leading to cancerous growths (Medical News Today). As we age, we also increase our chance of getting pancreatic cancer. When our age goes up, the number of possible cancer-causing mutations in our DNA also goes up. There are also other factors that increase the risks of pancreatic cancer. Habits such as smoking can increase the risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Diets and obesity are also linked to the disease. Diets that are low in vegetable and fruits and high in red meat and fat can certainly lead to cancer. Heavy consumption of alcohol has also been linked to the disease (Medical News Today).

As before mentioned, our system is prone to mistakes due to its complexity and work load. There are millions of cells working together to form organs, and these organs work together to make up a functioning organ system that is able to carry out daily routines without mistakes. However, to carry out such a task throughout a lifespan becomes a heavy burden. Cells are constantly exposed to a harsh environment, whether through carcinogens, diet, or other human habits. Other times, they are expected to scan for and fix naturally occurring mistakes in the body. When cells fail to protect themselves from these conditions and do not die, they divide as damaged cells. These cells are abnormal and cannot carry out normal tasks. As these cells divide, they come together and form a tumor, which can take over an organ and cause it to fail. The pancreas is an organ that fails as a result of tumor growth. This pancreatic tumor growth is better known as pancreatic cancer; one of the deadliest cancers that plagues humankind.

 

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