Pancreatic cancer. Just those two words can send a shock through individuals and through their loved ones. Approximately 56,770 individuals will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019. Of those people, about 45,750 will unfortunately lose their battle with cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. The high death rate is better explained as a percentage. While pancreatic cancer makes up only about 3% of all types of cancer in the United States, it accounts for 7% of all cancer-related deaths. 

What are the Risk Factors for Developing Pancreatic Cancer?

Risk factors are broad and fairly generic. Age is the primary risk factor. Younger patients that develop pancreatic cancer may have a family history or have a lifestyle risk such as obesity and smoking. Knowing the first signs and symptoms can help improve the chances of survival for you or a loved one.

What are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?

Early stage pancreatic cancer doesn’t usually cause any symptoms, but by the time they do appear, it means the cancer has usually grown or spread beyond the pancreas. While there aren’t usually early signs, it’s still important to recognize the first signs for your body so you can rule out this type of cancer as early as possible. Every moment counts.

Note: Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer, but it should be addressed by your doctor. It is difficult to overstress that any new symptoms that persist should be reported to your physician. 

Jaundice: Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Another sign of jaundice is dark urine. The majority of people with pancreatic cancer will experience jaundice as one of their first symptoms. Jaundice is caused due to the buildup of bilirubin, a dark yellow and brown substance made in the liver to help digest fats and absorb fat-soluble vitamins. With a normal functioning liver, the bile liquid would be released, passed through the intestines—not only helping with digestion, but also aiding in the body eliminating wastes—and finally leaving the body through bowel movements. However, when a tumor grows within the pancreas it can press against a bile duct blocking the excretion of the bile. When bile can’t get to the intestines, and the amount of bilirubin builds up in the bloodstream and becomes visible in the skin and the whites of the eye.

Nausea and Vomiting: When the tumor presses on the end of the stomach, it can make it hard for food to pass through. This problem leads to pain, vomiting, and nausea.

Poor Appetite and Weight Loss: Unexplained weight loss is common in individuals with pancreatic cancer. They just don’t have the appetite to consume their normal calorie count.

Back or Abdominal Pain: Pain radiating from the back or abdomen is not a surprise with pancreatic cancer. The reason for this is because a cancer that begins in the body or tail of the pancreas has the potential to grow quite large, and then it starts pressing on nearby organs, leading to pain. Cancer can also spread to nerves around the pancreas, causing back pain.

When someone experiences pain in their back or abdomen, and has just that symptom, it’s usually caused by something other than pancreatic cancer. However, it’s still wise to bring it to the attention of your medical care professional.

Blood Clots: It’s not uncommon for someone’s first sign to be a blood clot in a large vein when they have pancreatic cancer. This condition is called deep vein thrombosis. Symptoms of this can include redness, swelling, being warm to the touch, and pain in the affected leg. Sometimes a piece of the blood clot can break off and travel up to the lungs, making it difficult to breathe, causing chest pain. Blood clots found in the lung are called pulmonary embolism. Some researchers believe that the genetic changes that cause cells to become cancerous also increase the risk for developing blood clots. Having a blood clot, however, doesn’t automatically mean you have cancer, as they could be caused by other things. 

Liver or Gallbladder Enlargement: If cancer blocks the bile duct, bile will end up backing up into the gallbladder and causing it to get larger. Sometimes a doctor will be able to feel this by doing a physical exam or picking it up on imaging tests. Pancreatic cancer can make the liver larger, especially if it originated from the pancreas.

Diabetes: Although it is a rare symptom of pancreatic cancer, it is possible to develop diabetes since the tumor can destroy insulin-making cells. Symptoms of diabetes are feeling hungry and thirsty often, along with the need to urinate frequently. It’s more common for cancer to cause small changes in blood sugar levels that don’t lead to symptoms of diabetes—changes that can be detected with blood work.

What are the Symptoms that Affect the Digestive System?

Pancreatic cancer comes with some sneaky symptoms that can affect your digestive system. Since some of these symptoms are common, it can be hard to recognize that they could be caused by pancreatic cancer. Of course, just because you have one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean you should make assumptions about having cancer. Keep an eye on them and if any of these symptoms persists, fill in your doctor.

  • loss of appetite
  • vomiting and nausea
  • feelings of fullness
  • indigestion
  • diarrhea
  • poor digestion of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins
  • bowel obstruction

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is classified into two types. There is the exocrine gland and the endocrine gland. Approximately 95% of pancreatic cancers will start in the exocrine cells of the pancreas.

Exocrine Tumors: The majority of the pancreas is made up of exocrine cells. Most tumors that affect these cells are known as adenocarcinomas. An adenocarcinoma is also found in several other cancers including lung, prostate, and breast, and form in glands that secrete fluids. As for pancreatic adenocarcinomas, they usually form in the exocrine cells that are located in the pancreas ducts.

Endocrine Tumors: This type is less common and usually benign. While it’s rare, cancer that stems from the pancreatic endocrine tumor affects the hormone producing cells. These types of tumors are called neuroendocrine tumors or islet cell tumors.

How is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?

After presenting your symptoms, if there is a concern of pancreatic cancer, several tests may be considered.

Imaging Tests: An imaging test will help the physician visualize your organs, such as the pancreas. Some techniques used to diagnose pancreatic cancer are ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized tomography (CT), and positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

Removing a Tissue Sample for Testing: A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is removed to examine under a microscope. A small piece of tissue is obtained by inserting a needle through the skin and into the pancreas. Another word for this is fine-needle aspiration. There’s often no pain as a numbing agent is typically used. An ultrasound will also be used to guide the physician.

Endoscopic Ultrasound: Endoscopic ultrasound uses a special ultrasound device to create images of the pancreas from within. A device will be passed through a flexible, thin tube called an endoscope, and down your esophagus, into your stomach, to capture images.

Blood Test: Pancreatic cancer sheds specific proteins, and they are a tumor marker to see if pancreatic cancer is present. One of the tumor marker tests that are used in pancreatic cancer is known as CA19-9; however, the test isn’t always reliable. A blood test should not be the only form of testing for this reason, but some doctors measure this level before, during, and following treatment.

Once a diagnosis is made, cancer treatment will depend on each individual. Some forms of cancer treatment are surgery, medication, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Always alert your doctor if you have new symptoms that persist. While you don’t want to assume all symptoms could be cancer, it’s important to stay in tune with your body so you know what’s normal for you and what’s not. 

If you have any concerns and would like to speak with a professional at GI Associates, you can request an appointment today.

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