An insulinoma is a small tumor (typically less than two centimeters) on your pancreas that produces extra insulin and causes blood sugar levels to drop too low. These tumors are rare and usually do not spread to other parts of your body. The cause of insulinomas is unknown.

The pancreas is responsible for converting the food we eat into energy for the body’s cells. It has two main functions: to help digestion and regulate blood sugar. After you eat a meal, it helps the cells absorb glucose for energy and lowers blood sugar. In addition, it helps stabilize blood sugar levels between meals by releasing glucagon, which instructs the liver to release stored glucose.

Malignant insulinomas may spread and develop secondary tumors beyond the pancreas, most often affecting the liver.

Risk factors for insulinoma

People in the following categories have a heightened risk for insulinoma:

  • Women appear to be twice as likely to be affected as men.
  • 40 years of age and older
  • Those with a personal or family medical history of the following genetic diseases:           

Multiple endocrine neoplasia type I (MEN 1)
A condition that causes abnormal tissues to grow in the endocrine system.

Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome
A condition that causes cysts and tumors throughout the body.

Signs and symptoms of malignant insulinoma

Symptoms of insulinoma may not always be apparent. When symptoms occur, they often vary based on the severity of the condition. Mild symptoms may include:

  • Blackouts or seizures
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Weakness
  • Sweating
  • Hunger

How are insulinomas diagnosed?

You will be required to have a medically supervised 72-hour fast, unable to eat or drink anything except water, during which time they will closely monitor your blood sugar levels. If you have an insulinoma, you will probably have deficient blood sugar levels within 48 hours of starting this test.

They may also order an MRI or CT scan to determine the location and size of the tumor.

If the insulinoma is too small to be seen with these imaging tests, you may need tests that sample blood from multiple areas of your pancreas to detect where the extra insulin is releasing into your bloodstream.

Treatment options for insulinoma

The best treatment option for an insulinoma is the laparoscopic surgical removal of the tumor. This low-risk, minimally invasive procedure uses a laparoscope or a long, thin tube with a high-intensity light and high-resolution camera at the front to locate the tumor for removal. Treatments for cancerous insulinomas include:

  • Radiofrequency ablation
    This procedure uses electrical energy to heat and destroy the tumor and cancerous cells in the body.
  • Cryotherapy
    This procedure uses extreme cold to destroy cancerous cells in the body.
  • Chemotherapy
    This is an aggressive type of chemical drug treatment that helps destroy cancerous cells in the body.

While there are no known ways to prevent insulinomas, it’s important to regularly get screened for this condition. The best treatment is prevention, so be sure to talk to your doctor if you have any genetic conditions that increase risk. The team of specialists at Astera Cancer Care will create a personalized plan that considers everything from your age to your medication tolerance. If you or a loved one needs cancer care or treatment, please call (732) 390-7750 to schedule an appointment.

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