It accounts for about 3 percent of all cancers in the United States, but 7 percent of cancer deaths.
Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas, a pear-shaped organ located behind the lower part of your stomach.
Cells in the pancreas begin to multiply out of control and form a mass, leading to a cancerous tumor. This cancer can impair the two main functions of the pancreas–secreting enzymes that aid digestion and insulin that helps your body process sugar.
It almost always occurs after age 45, although it can affect younger people as well.
It is still not clear what causes this cancer, however certain factors increase your risk. Such factors include obesity, chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), diabetes, family history of pancreatic cancer and inherited gene mutations, and excessive smoking. African-Americans are also at a higher risk.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect early and it typically spreads rapidly, affecting other parts of the body. This is why it is called a silent disease.
There are certain early warning signs for pancreatic cancer, however people often ignore them because the symptoms are so nonspecific. Awareness of these early symptoms can help save many precious lives.
Here are the early warning signs of pancreatic cancer that you must know.
It is common for people with pancreatic cancer to experience jaundice, characterized by yellowing of the eyes or skin. Jaundice can also cause itchiness on the hands and feet, especially the palms and soles.
Any size of tumor located in the head of the pancreas can lead to irregular bile (a yellowish-brown fluid released by your liver to aid digestion) flowing from the gallbladder into the small intestine. This causes excess buildup of bilirubin in the blood, one of the main causes of jaundice.
If you have signs of jaundice, consult your doctor as it is a common symptom of many liver and gallbladder diseases as well as a sign of pancreatic cancer. If other causes are ruled out, ask your doctor about testing for pancreatic cancer.
2. Abdominal and Lower Back Pain
Abdominal as well as back pain are also common symptoms in patients with pancreatic cancer. Usually, the sharp pain is felt in the upper abdomen, which gradually radiates toward the back.
Many patients also report the pain is more severe at night and that they get slight relief from the pain by bending forward.
A 2001 study published in the Pancreas journal found that abdominal pain in pancreatic cancer patients can be due to the increasing size of the tumor, invasion of the intra-pancreatic nerves, invasion of the anterior pancreatic capsule and lymph node metastasis.
If you are experiencing persistent, mild to moderate abdominal pain, consult a doctor. Most cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed in patients visiting the emergency room complaining of severe abdominal pain.
In fact, the location of the pain is helpful in determining where a tumor is located.
3. Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea followed by vomiting is another sign of pancreatic cancer. As the tumor grows, it can block some portions of the digestive tract, which hampers the overall digestion process.
Along with nausea and vomiting, you may also experience heartburn and acid reflux.
As any kind of interference with normal digestion and excretion processes can cause vomiting, all nausea and vomiting episodes are not necessarily linked with cancer.
Try peppermint or ginger tea as well as limiting your water intake with meals, but drink water between meals to reduce nausea.
If these symptoms tend to worsen after eating and it is becoming difficult for you to eat anything without throwing up, consult your doctor.
In advanced cases of pancreatic cancer, surgery may be required to bypass the blockage and improve digestion.
4. Sudden, Unexplained Weight Loss
Unexplained weight loss is another noticeable warning sign of different types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer.
Weight loss often occurs when a tumor spreads to nearby organs and impairs their functioning. This affects proper digestion of nutrients and also leads to poor appetite.
Also, due to lack of pancreatic enzymes aiding digestion, dietary fats start passing through the body undigested, which in turn causes weight loss. Furthermore, the cancer cells compete with healthy cells for nutrients.
If you have started losing weight suddenly without making any changes to your diet or physical activity, consult your doctor.
5. Greasy or Light-Colored Stool
Stools of people suffering from pancreatic cancer have some distinct characteristics. The stools may become large, pale, oily, floating and smelly as the growing tumor prevents the pancreas from releasing its digestive enzymes.
These enzymes are needed to digest food, especially fatty food. The undigested fat ultimately ends up in your stool, making it float or look greasy. These fatty stools are difficult to flush away.
Furthermore, stools turn a lighter color due to the lack of bilirubin.
As the color and consistency of your stool says a lot about your health, any kind of bowel changes should be reported to your doctor.
6. Changes in Urine Color
Along with changes in your stools, you may also notice changes in your urine color, despite drinking enough fluid throughout the day. Your urine may become darker and take on an orange, amber or brown shade.
A growing pancreatic tumor can cause bile to get blocked and not released from your body in the way that it should be. Too much bilirubin in the body can get into your urine and make it dark in appearance. At times, there also may be traces of blood in your urine.
If you notice that your urine has become darker in color without any dietary explanation, it is important to find out the cause behind it.
7. Lack of Appetite
People who have pancreatic cancer also notice a sudden drop in their appetite and a tendency to feel full after eating very little.
As the tumor starts growing, it can cause pressure on the stomach or the small intestine, leading to a blockage in the digestive tract. This can make one feel full after eating very little and cause significant loss of appetite as well as weight loss.
Remember, significant changes in appetite can make a person weak and tired, which can even hinder treatment as well as recovery.
This is why it’s vital to consult your doctor if you have persistent, diminished appetite combined with significant weight loss.
As the pancreas is an integral part of the digestive system, the presence of a tumor can cause several gastrointestinal symptoms, including bloating, gas and inflammation in the abdomen.
Bloating and gas generally develop after eating a meal and may even be accompanied by heartburn or indigestion.
These symptoms occur when the tumor in the pancreas starts exerting pressure on the stomach and abdomen, making it difficult for the stomach to function properly.
If bloating is new for you and isn’t getting better with medication, you should go back to see your doctor.
9. Constant Fatigue and Weakness
General weakness and fatigue, without any change in diet and physical activity, can be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer.
In this context, fatigue can be due to the increasing growth of the tumor itself, lack of sleep due to pain or other reasons, and anemia due to loss of appetite.
Improper eating also takes a toll on your energy level and you may feel the need to rest and sleep more than usual.
If you are feeling weak and fatigued even after getting more sleep and rest, see your doctor to have the problem evaluated.
It can be a sign of a variety of cancers as well as other health problems. Early diagnosis increases the success rate of treatment.
10. Sudden, Unexplained Diabetes
Diabetes diagnosed very suddenly with no apparent reason and without any family history of the disease can be a warning sign of pancreatic cancer. A tumor can destroy insulin-making cells in your pancreas, leading to diabetes.
Symptoms such as constant fatigue, urinary urgency, numbness in your fingers and toes, and vision problems can signal onset of diabetes. If diagnosed with sudden and unexplained diabetes, opt for regular screening for pancreatic cancer.
In a 2012 study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, researchers found that approximately 80 percent of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are identified as having concomitant diabetes with a poor prognostic factor.
This study also puts emphasis on diabetes as a potential cause and effect of pancreatic cancer.
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