Pancreatic cancer remains one of the deadlier forms of the disease, and just the suggestion of a diagnosis can be pretty scary. Despite being rare, only responsible for about 3% of cancer diagnoses, it causes nearly 7% of cancer-related deaths. It most often strikes people 65 and older, with the risk of developing it increasing as you get older. Catching it early increases survival rates though, so knowing the symptoms can save your life.
Pancreatic cancer is so deadly because it often goes detected until it’s spread to other parts of the body. This is because most people with pancreatic cancer report experiencing few, if any, symptoms until the cancer has already begun to spread. The pancreas is also positioned deep in the core of the body, so tumors, hidden by other organs, are often not observed during routine exams. The five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is only 8.2%.
Although early pancreatic cancer often grows silently within the body, there are a few symptoms to watch for:
Abdominal pain: One of the more common symptoms of pancreatic cancer is pain caused by the tumor pressing against neighboring organs. Sometimes, the cancer can spread into or against nearby nerve tissue, which can also result in back pain.
Appetite loss: Appetite loss, along with unintended weight loss, is another common symptom of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic tumors can affect insulin levels, and cancer in this region often affects the liver due to proximity and its interactive relationship with the pancreas. All of this can affect both appetite and digestion, leading to weight loss.
Jaundice: Depending on where on the pancreas the tumor grows, it can obstruct bile duct flow and cause bilirubin, a byproduct of the liver, to build up in certain areas of the body. This causes a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, and may darken the urine. Bilirubin buildup in the skin can also cause itching.
Nausea and vomiting: Pancreatic tumors that press against the stomach wall can cause obstructions and digestive issues that can lead to pain, nausea, and vomiting.
Pale or greasy stools: Usually coinciding with jaundice, pale stools indicate that bilirubin (responsible for stools’ dark color), isn’t getting through the bile duct. This can have a number of causes, pancreatic tumor obstruction being one of them. Pancreatic cancer can also affect how the body digests certain foods, interfering with the production of digestive enzymes. This can lead to greasy, smelly stools that float, or other complications such as diarrhea.
It is believed that 20-30% of pancreatic cancers can be attributed to cigarette smoking. Additionally, those who are overweight have a 20% higher risk of developing the disease. You can reduce your risk of developing pancreatic cancer by not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and by eating a balanced diet. Some believe limiting exposure to chemicals such as dry cleaning solutions and other industrial agents may also reduce cancer risk. Staying happy, staying healthy, and early detection together can help you take the best care of yourself.