Pancreatic cancer is incredibly prevalent, currently being the third leading cancer-related cause of death in the United States. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive. In fact, by the time it is diagnosed, 80% of the patients are terminal. That is why early diagnosis and continued research are the best hopes for fighting this aggressive disease.
What is pancreatic cancer?
The pancreas is a small organ, located under the curve of the stomach in front of the spine. Its primary job is to produce enzymes that help you digest food. It also secretes hormones that help regulate and maintain blood sugar (glucose) levels; the cells that produce the digestive enzymes and hormones are called exocrine cells.
Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cancer cells attack the pancreatic tissue. Most forms of pancreatic cancer begin their attack in the exocrine cells.
What can increase your risk of pancreatic cancer?
There are some factors that place people at an increased risk of developing this disease. Some of these factors include:
- Chronic pancreas inflammation
What are the early warning signs?
Early diagnosis is key to increasing the odds of successfully treating pancreatic cancer. After all, the sooner you begin treatment, the greater the odds of surviving this aggressive cancer. That means knowing the early warning signs is essential.
So, just what are some of these early warning signs to be on the lookout for?...
One of the first and most common signs of pancreatic cancer is jaundice.
What is jaundice?
Jaundice is yellowing of the skin and eyes.
How does it happen?
Normally, the liver produces bile that contains yellowish-brown bilirubin. The bile duct then secretes this bile into the intestines where it helps break down fats. It then leaves the body through stool. So, if the bile duct becomes blocked, the bile can no longer reach the intestines. The result? It all builds up in the body, causing the yellowish tint seen with jaundice.
How does cancer cause jaundice?
Pancreatic cancer disrupts the elimination of bilirubin. Why, though? It all has to do with location.
Namely, this type of cancer often forms in the head of the pancreas, which is located near the bile duct. Therefore, a pancreatic tumor can easily press on the duct. When this pressure occurs, it interferes with the bodyâ€™s ability to eliminate the bilirubin.
When does this symptom occur?
This symptom can occur when the tumors are still small. Therefore, it can lead to early detection of pancreatic cancer. However, jaundice can also be a late-stage sign of pancreatic cancer.
Specifically, when pancreatic cancer begins in the body or tail, it may not press on the bile duct until the cancer has spread through the entire pancreas. By this stage, the cancer has more than likely spread to other parts of the body. It is at this point that the condition can be terminal.
Jaundice isn't the only way pancreatic cancer can affect your skin.
If you start noticing redness, soreness, or itching, keep reading...
10. Irritated Skin
If a cancerous tumor enlarges in the pancreas, early warning signs can include symptoms that affect the skin besides just jaundice.
How does pancreatic cancer cause itchiness and irritation?
We know that excess bilirubin can create a yellow tint to the eyes and skin seen with jaundice. That buildup of bilirubin can also cause itchiness and skin irritation.
How does pancreatic cancer cause rashes?
Another skin condition a pancreatic tumor can cause is a blistering, red rash on any part of the body. How does this happen? It's all due to an excessive amount of the hormone glucagon, which may be spurred by the presence of a tumor.
Cancer or something else?
There are many reasons for skin to become irritated, such as dryness, allergies, and reactions to plants or insects. So, irritated skin alone is not a clear sign of pancreatic cancer. If these symptoms are combined with any of the others, though, it may be time to call your doctor.
Now, skin irritation is quite easy to miss or associate with a serious condition. This next symptom, though, is a more classic symptom of cancer..
Johns Hopkins warns that a common sign of pancreatic cancer is pain in the back or stomach.
Where exactly is the pain located?
It's important to note that patients commonly experience symptoms in different ways. Further, not all back and stomach pain is a sign of pancreatic cancer. However, a common symptom for many pancreatic cancer patients is a dull pain in the belly or upper abdomen.
It can also manifest as a pain in the middle or upper back that is intermittent (every now and again). This pain is most likely due to a tumor that has formed on the tail or body of the pancreas and is pressing against the spine. It is then aggravated when the patient moves in different positions.
What does the pain feel like?
This pain is sometimes described as beginning in the middle of the abdomen and radiating toward the back. The pain can increase when laying down. If it is relieved by leaning forward, it could mean the pressure is caused by a tumor pressing against the spine.
What should you do if you think you have this symptom?
Be on the lookout for:
- Dull pain in the belly or upper abdomen
- Intermittent pain in the middle or upper back
- Pain that radiates from the middle of the abdomen toward the back
- Pain that increases when laying down
- Pain that is relieved by leaning forward
- New pain
If you have these symptoms, consult your doctor immediately and describe what you are experiencing. When paired with this next symptom, it could be a sign of pancreatic problems...
8. Weight Loss
Pancreatic cancer can cause patients to experience significant weight loss, even in the early stages of the disease. In fact, weight loss may occur before any other signs show.
How does pancreatic cancer cause weight loss?
Research indicates that the reason for sudden weight loss has to do with enzymes. Specifically, when the pancreas is under attack, there is a reduction of key pancreatic enzymes. Importantly, these enzymes help digest food.
Muscle wasting also occurs.
Muscle wasting can be another cause of weight loss. Harvard Medical School found that muscle tissue also starts breaking down in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.
Researchers aren't 100% sure of why tissue wasting occurs. The current hypothesis, though, is that a tumor produces a hormone or other signaling factor that can enter the bloodstream. Once there, it can cause the breakdown of muscles and fat.
Is there any relationship between weight loss and survival rate?
Is there a correlation between muscle weight loss and the survival rate of those with pancreatic cancer? Probably not. In a study involving 782 patients, there was no link between the degree of muscle loss and the length of survival.
Cancer or something else?
Weight loss can be due to any number of reasons, such as change in diet, exercise, or another ongoing illness. If it's caused by pancreatic cancer, there is no evidence to suggest that the rate of weight loss will impact the rate of patient survival.
If weight loss occurs, it's time to take a look down at the toilet the next time you visit the restroom...
7. Changes in Urine or Stool Color
While you may not be in the habit of checking the consistency or color of what you leave in the toilet, this may be something you want to include in your daily routine. After all, a change in stool or urine could indicate a change in health.
How does pancreatic cancer cause these changes?
When a cancerous tumor affects the pancreas and its bile production, you can see the results in the body's elimination processâ€”aka, urine and stool/feces. Just as a blocked bile duct can cause jaundice, the same type of blockage can cause the bilirubin to show up in the urine and stools. When this happens, the color of these excrements can change.
What will the urine look like?
The leaking of bilirubin into the urine can stain it brown or even orange. Any sign of brown urine should be checked immediately by your doctor.
What will the stool look like?
Normal stools will be brown; those that have no bilirubin will be lighter in color. When cancer prevents the pancreas from producing digestive enzymes, the body had a more difficult time breaking down fat. This will affect the color and consistency of the stools.
How? Because the undigested fat can end up in the stools. The warning signs that the pancreas is not able to do its job is when stools have a clay-colored, greasy appearance and/or float.
Of course, changes in color to your stool isn't the only change in feces you may notice...
Diarrhea is a common occurrence with many forms of pancreatic cancer, including VIPoma.
What is VIPoma?
VIPoma is a relatively rare form of pancreatic cancer. It typically grows from islet cells, or pancreatic cell clusters that produce hormones.
How does VIPoma cause diarrhea?
A VIPoma tumor releases vasoactive intestinal peptides (VIPs). The presence of VIPs causes an excessive amount of water to enter the digestive system. This influx of water is what causes severe diarrhea.
How else does cancer cause diarrhea?
Diarrhea can also be a side effect of pancreatic cancer for another reason. Specifically, a tumor can disrupt the digestive process by blocking the bile duct; this blockage prevents necessary bodily functions needed to digest food. The result? An inability to absorb the nutrients you need from your food, which can trigger diarrhea.
Cancer or something else?
It's important to remember that many different conditions can cause diarrhea. In fact, even just a simple change in diet or drinking some extra coffee can cause diarrhea. That is why it's important to know many early warning signs of pancreatic cancerâ€”so that you can cross-reference them. In other words, if there are more than two symptoms with seemingly no other explanation, it's time to contact your physician.
More gastrointestinal problems may arise.
Given the nature and location of pancreatic cancer, it's not surprising for patients to notice lots of gastrointestinal problems, including the following...
5. Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting? Pay close attention, as it could be a sign of cancer.
How does cancer cause this symptom?
When cancer attacks the pancreas, the digestive system can be affected. Why? Because when the tumor continues to attack the pancreas, it compromises hormones and enzymes involved in digestion. This compromise may therefore lead to digestive problems, such as nausea and vomiting.
The lack of enzyme production can also make a patient feel sick to their stomach.
What other digestive problems can occur?
Other cancer-caused digestive symptoms include:
- Increased stomach acid, creating a painful and/or burning sensation.
- Partial or complete blockage of the stomach and intestines, preventing food from passing through the digestive system.
Cancer or something else?
An upset stomach is a normal body reaction to a disruption in the digestive system. Nausea and vomiting are common conditions with causes that range from hangovers to the flu.
If you experience sudden, unexplained, and recurrent nausea seemingly unrelated to another cause, it may be an early warning sign of pancreatic cancer. In fact, it may be time to check for the following symptoms as well...
4. Liver or Gallbladder Enlargement
How does pancreatic cancer cause gallbladder enlargement?
When cancer blocks a bile duct, bile will naturally build up in the gallbladder. This excess bile can enlarge the organ.
How can you check for enlarged gallbladder?
You won't normally feel this symptom. However, you can check for your gallbladderâ€”and any unusual sensationsâ€”under the right side of the rib cage.
Why does pancreatic cancer cause liver enlargement?
The liver can also enlarge in certain stages of pancreatic cancer. If this enlargement occurs, it usually means cancer has spread to the liver.
How can you check for enlarged liver?
Like the gallbladder, the liver can be felt below the rib cage.
How is this symptom professionally identified?
A doctor may be able to feel an enlarged gallbladder during a physical exam. Imaging tests may also spot enlarged organs.
The enlargement of the gallbladder or liver is hard to detect when they do not cause pain. That is why regular physical exams by a physician are necessary. So, when you visit your doctor, be sure to ask specifically for gallbladder and liver checks. This inquiry is especially important if you have any condition that may make you more susceptible to pancreatic cancer.
This symptom is naturally harder to spot at home, much like the following symptom, unfortunately...
3. Blood Clots
Another early warning sign that you might have pancreatic cancer is a blood clot.
Where are these clots usually located?
Any type of blood clot in a large vein should be checked. Most often, though, pancreatic cancer-related clots will be in the leg; this type of clot is known as a deep vein thrombosis.
What does this symptom feel like?
The symptoms often include the following (in the affected leg):
Cancer or something else?
There are many other reasons why blood clots form. These reasons include:
- Prolonged sitting or bed rest
What do you do if you suspect you have a blood clot?
While a blood clot may not be a warning sign that you have pancreatic cancer, it's still best to be proactive. After all, even if it's not cancer, blood clots can be signs of other serious conditions that also require immediate medical attention. So, if you do experience a blood clotâ€”or suspect that you have oneâ€”go ahead and get tested as soon as possible.
This advice is doubly true if you have diabetes...
As previously discussed, diabetes may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Importantly, either the initial development of diabetes or worsening of pre-existing diabetes symptoms can indicate cancer.
Who is at risk?
Research has suggested that a sudden onset of type 2 diabetes in individuals over the age of 50 could be an early warning sign for pancreatic cancer.
The warning signs are typically strongerâ€”and therefore easier to spotâ€”for those who:
- Have a low body mass
- Are experiencing unexplained weight loss
- Do not have any family history of diabetes
If any of these symptoms occurâ€”and you are over the age of 50 when you receive a diabetes diagnosisâ€”you should be especially vigilant in getting routinely checked for pancreatic cancer.
Glucose problems for previously diagnosed diabetics are also causes for concern.
Another warning sign for pancreatic cancer? A sudden change in blood sugar levels in previously diagnosed diabetics. So, those who haven't previously had difficulties controlling their diabetes should be on the lookout for other pancreatic cancer symptoms.
The clearest warning sign of all?
One of the easiest signs of pancreatic cancer to spot is...
1. Family History
There's no denying the importance of genetics in regards to health.
How do genetics influence the development of pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer, for instance, is a disease caused by a mutation in DNA. You can either be born with these mutations or they can develop later in life.
These changes in DNA explain why this disease runs in some families. Specifically, some people may inherit a specific trait that makes them more susceptible to this type of cancer. This trait can be triggered during standard cell replication or by environmental exposure to cancer-causing agents, such as those found in cigarettes.
How much does heredity increase the risk for this type of cancer?
About 10% of pancreatic cancer is linked to heredity.
Researchers have identified certain mutations that may lead to a higher rate of pancreatic cancer in certain groups. Fortunately, there is testing available that may identify the gene mutations for certain types of pancreatic cancer.
What should you do if pancreatic cancer runs in the family?
If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, you can talk to a cancer genetics counselor who can advise you if a genetic test would be a good option.
The importance of understanding mutations.
Research has not uncovered exactly how the process of DNA damage leads to pancreatic cancer. We do know, though, that the mutations that lead to pancreatic cancer can occur randomly. We also know that both environmental factors and inherited traits can trigger these mutations.
So, what should you do if you think you have the symptoms of this aggressive form of cancer?...
What We Do Know About Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer has few easily identifiable early warning signs. After all, many of these signs are also symptoms of many common illnesses and ailments.
Understanding personal risk.
Certain risk factors for pancreatic cancer have been identified. For example, 1 in 76 people will develop pancreatic cancerâ€”those with specific risk factors may be more susceptible.
Early detection is key.
It's importantâ€”especially if you are at riskâ€”to understand the warning signs associated with pancreatic cancer. If you are vigilant and understand when these signs seemingly have no normal cause, it's time to make an appointment with your doctor. Remember: early detection is the best chance you have of surviving pancreatic cancer.