There Are 6 Symptoms Of Pancreatic Cancer You Should Watch Out For And Not Ignore
Truth be told, pancreatic cancer is actually quite rare, with only about a little over 57,000 Americans expected to be diagnosed until the end of 2020 (as compared to non-melanoma skin cancer with about 1 million afflicted, and lung cancer with about 200,000). But it is still a cancer, and its symptoms should never be ignored. Celebrities like Steve Jobs, Luciano Pavaroti, Aretha Franklin, Patrick Swayze, and recently, Alex Trbek, have succumbed to the disease.
Most likely, you probably neve really thought about your pancreas, where it is located, and what it does for us. It is an organ located behind the stomach, and helps digest food and convert it to energy. It produces insulin and regulates your body’s hormones that maintain your blood sugar levels.
It may be uncommon, but pancreatic cancer is very aggressive. Dr. Neil Woody, oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic, said, “ It has a high likelihood of spread, or metastasis, to other organs in the body.” According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate is only 9%. And it seems that the disease is also on the rise, with an increased diagnosed rate of .5% per year for over a decade. Dr. Valerie Lee, pancreatic oncologist at John Hopkins Medicine, explains that this is due to increased detection, and certain lifestyle factors. Pancreatic cancer risk factors like obesity and diabetes may also be contributors to the rise in the number of cases.
So what are the major symptoms to watch out for? Dr. Woody stresses that pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose. Only about 10% of pancreatic cancers have a genetic predisposition and good screenings for the general public have been difficult to establish. “Tests with high likelihood of detecting pancreatic cancer, such as endoscopic ultrasound, are invasive, costly, and may carry risks of complications that outweigh their use as screening tests for the average person,” Dr. Woody said.
Unfortunately, the cancer is tough to spot in its early stages, and usually there are no symptoms until the cancer has already spread to other organs. Having said this, there are some warning signs you should not ignore, and see your doctor immediately.
1. Abdominal pain. While there are so many reasons why you will experience pain in the abdomen, Dr. Lee explains, “ The pancreas sits close to a bundle of blood vessels and nerves called the celiac plexus that can cause pain and nerve irritation.” Another doctor specializing in pancreatic cancer at the University of Pennsylvania, Kim Reiss-Binder, M.D., said, “ patients feel pain from the epigastrum (the area just under the sternum) through to their back. Imagine a tire hiked up right under your chest and around your abdomen.” Well, that clears that matter.
2. Diarrhea and floating stools. Dr. Lee explains, “ The pancreas does not just produce insulin; it also produces pancreatic enzymes that help breakdown fat. If there is a blockage in the output of pancreatic enzymes, such as a tumor developing in the pancreas, then fat is not digested well.” When this happens, your stool is “fatty” and foul-smelling, and usually floats rather than sink to the bottom of the toilet. This may happen several times after eating fatty meals, so consult your doctor to know if you have a problem or not.
3. New onset of diabetes. According to Dr. Lee, “ When people with no risk factor for diabetes develop new onset diabetes, or who have a history of well controlled diabetes suddenly find that it becomes difficult to control, it’s reasonable to evaluate why the pancreas may not be functioning as well.” Even with no family history of diabetes, or on a good diet, if this happens, check with your doctor immediately.
4. Yellowing of the skin (jaundice). Since the pancreas is located close to the liver, which produces bile, if there is a tumor that prevents the bile ducts from draining bile correctly, people may develop elevated levels of bilirubin in their body – which causes the yellowing of the skin. Dr. Lee explains, “ This is usually best seen in the white of the eyes, and can also lead to itching all over the body, light colored stools, and darkened urine.”
5. Appearance of unexplained blood clots. “ Patients with pancreatic cancer are particularly prone to blood clots,” explains Dr. Lee. However, the actual cause is not known, but it is believed that cancer cells reduce the proteins the body uses to prevent blood clots. Dr. Lee further adds, “ For people who do not have a reason for the development of a clot – a recent major surgery, trauma (like a car accident), hospitalization, or prolonged period where you are laying still, or a hereditary predisposition to clotting – we recommend making sure you are up to date on your cancer screening and to check in with your doctor about any other symptoms that may help to identify the source of the clotting abnormality.”
6. Unexplained weight loss. Lastly, if you seem to be losing weight, have no appetite, or feeling full right away after eating just a bit, then you know something is wrong. This may be a sign of pancreatic cancer, so don’t take it for granted. Dr. Reiss-Binder says, “ The pancreas is nestled right near the small intestine, near the first part of the small intestine, and tumors can cause food to back up or not get through to the small intestine as quickly.”
So there you have it, six warning signs you should watch out for. Hopefully if you experience any of these, it may just be a minor dilemma, and not pancreatic cancer. It is best to consult with your doctor always, and don’t think it won’t happen to you. Stay safe.