Looking after your pancreas

If everything's going well, chances are that you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about your pancreas.

We spoke to Mr Simon Banting MBBS FRACS, a hepatobiliary and upper gastrointestinal surgeon, about what your pancreas does and how St Vincent’s Private helps patients with pancreatic pathology.


Your pancreas does double duty to keep things ticking: “The pancreas has two functions. One is endocrine.  It secretes insulin, so it’s important in controlling blood sugar levels. If that fails, you’ll be a diabetic. It also has an exocrine function, where it excretes enzymes that break down your food so they can be absorbed in the gut.”

Keeping your pancreas in good health means paying attention to what you’re eating and drinking, and getting active to maintain a healthy weight range. Alcohol and cigarettes are not friendly to your pancreas. Your pancreas is especially sensitive to alcohol and too much can cause your pancreas to become inflamed, a condition called pancreatitis. Cigarette smoking has been linked to another all-too-common condition, pancreatic cancer.

While we often hear about diabetes, pancreatic cancer doesn’t get much attention. However, it’s important that awareness is raised about this disease, which is the tenth most common cancer in men and ninth most common cancer in women in Australia. Unfortunately, this is a cancer that is hard to diagnose early, and so has a relatively high mortality rate. Symptoms to look for include abdominal pain, weight loss, jaundice and vomiting. Occasionally, it may present as new onset diabetes.

When it comes to treating pancreatic cancer, Mr Banting and the team at St Vincent’s Private take a collaborative, multidisciplinary  approach: “At St Vincent’s the patients are all discussed at multidisciplinary cancer meetings. We get together our oncologists, radiotherapists, pathologists, radiologists, and various paramedical people including palliative care workers, to coordinate multidisciplinary care.”

Common treatments for pancreatic cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or a combination of these. “Patients might have neoadjuvant treatment, which means we try to reduce tumours with chemotherapy or radiotherapy prior to surgery. Commonly, patients will have adjuvant chemotherapy post resection of their pancreatic cancer.”

Depending on what part of the pancreas is involved with pathology, a patient won’t generally have all of their pancreas removed. Surgery usually means a pancreaticoduodenectomy, which is a removal of the head of the pancreas and the duodenum. While this is considered major surgery, Mr Banting has a lot of positives to call out, “pancreatic cancer surgery has improved over the last two decades, because we’re better at doing the surgery; we’re better at selecting the right patients for such surgery, and because of our multidisciplinary approach to pancreatic pathology.”

Mr Simon Banting can be contacted through:
13/41 Victoria Street, Fitzroy 3065
Phone: 03 9416 2246

Speak to your GP for more information and a referral.