Estimates suggest that over 57,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020. While pancreatic cancer is not the most common cancer, it is still the ninth most common cancer diagnosis among women in the U.S. and the tenth most common in men.
There is currently no known cure for any type of cancer, including pancreatic cancer. In terms of what is the survival rate for pancreatic cancer, often the best outcome comes from diagnosing the cancer as soon as possible, which usually results from catching the right symptoms. What are the signs of pancreatic cancer? Read on to learn more.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer refers to any cancer that starts in the cells of the pancreas, which is distinct from secondary cancers that start elsewhere and spread to the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ found in the abdomen, behind the lower section of the stomach. It produces enzymes that aid in normal digestion and nutrient absorption, and it synthesizes and secretes hormones, like insulin, that manage blood sugar levels.
Pancreatic cancer comes in various types and forms. The most common type of pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma. This starts in the exocrine cells, which are the cells that line the ducts and glands within the pancreas. These ducts and glands are responsible for producing the enzymes that help you digest food. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma accounts for about 95 percent of exocrine cancers.
Pancreatic cancer can also affect endocrine cells, which make up a far smaller percentage of the cells in your pancreas. These are the cells responsible for producing the hormones insulin and glucagon, which control blood sugar levels.
While there is not necessarily a straightforward answer to the question “What is the one cause of pancreatic cancer?”, pancreatic cancer is caused primarily by genetic mutations in the DNA. Some of these genes may be inherited from your parents, while other mutations can develop with exposure to certain environmental factors.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer can vary from patient to patient, but in most cases, symptoms are not noticeable until the final stages of pancreatic cancer where the tumor has grown large or already spread to areas outside of the pancreas. This can potentially lead to greater difficulties with some pancreatic cancer treatment options. Read about some of the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer below.
Pain in Your Back or Stomach
Pain in the abdomen or back is one of the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer. The pancreas itself is located behind the lower part of the stomach. A tumor that starts in the main body or tail of the pancreas can grow and press against nearby organs in the abdomen, causing abdominal pain. The tumor may also press against nerves around the pancreas, resulting in back pain.
Jaundice refers to a yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes. Jaundice is an early symptom and one of the most notable signs of pancreatic cancer. Jaundice is normally associated with liver problems as it is caused by the buildup of bilirubin, a dark yellow-brown substance found in bile. Bile is a fluid that helps in the digestion and break down of fats. It is produced within the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and flushed out of the body in your stools.
Whenever the common bile duct gets blocked, the bile is unable to reach the intestines, causing the amount of bilirubin to back up. As it builds up, the bilirubin can eventually translate its coloring to the skin and eyes, resulting in a yellow tinge to both.
A tumor that starts at the head of the pancreas can potentially press on the nearby common bile duct. Even smaller tumors can block the duct and contribute to jaundice. Similarly, pancreatic cancer can cause jaundice when it spreads to the nearby liver.
The buildup of bilirubin can also lead to symptoms outside of skin and eye color changes. This includes:
- Darker urine – As bilirubin levels increase, it can eventually reach the urine and turn it into a darker color.
- Lighter or greasier stools – Bilirubin normally makes stools a brown color. A blocked bile duct prevents bilirubin from ever reaching the intestines or bowels, so stools may appear lighter in color or even grey. Bile is also necessary to break down fats and oils in your diet. Without enough bile, more fats will reach your stools, causing them to feel greasier and potentially float in the toilet.
- Itchy skin – As bilirubin builds up and reaches the skin, it may also irritate your skin and cause itchiness.
An Enlarged Liver or Gallbladder
Alternately, blocking the bile duct can also cause the liquid to build up within the gallbladder, gradually making it larger. The cancer can also enlarge the liver, particularly if the pancreatic tumor has spread. This can be noticeable enough for your doctor to even feel your enlarged liver or gallbladder under your rib cage during a physical exam.
Loss of Appetite or Unexplained Weight Loss
Cachexia, or tumor-induced weight loss, is a common symptom of many types of cancer. The tumor essentially decreases appetite while burning more calories and breaking down muscles. This comes from the tumor releasing cytokines into the blood, changing how the body uses nutrients.
Nausea and Vomiting
As the pancreas is so close to the stomach, a pancreatic tumor can potentially press on and block sections of the stomach. Food can have trouble entering the stomach, resulting in sudden nausea, vomiting, or pain after eating.
Normally when you cut or scrape your skin, a clot forms to stop bleeding thanks to platelets and fibrin. Sometimes, blood clots can form within your veins without any actual bleeding, which can lead to some serious health problems. This can be common in forms of cancer, including pancreatic cancer. Blood clots can often form in large veins, especially in the legs. This is known as deep vein thrombosis. Symptoms of deep vein thrombosis include pain, redness, swelling, and warmth in the leg.
Sometimes, the blood clot can break off and end up in your lungs. This is known as a pulmonary embolism, and it can contribute to chest pain and discomfort as well as trouble breathing.
In some rare cases of pancreatic cancer, you may be diagnosed with diabetes, or if you already have diabetes, you may have more trouble managing its symptoms. Remember that the pancreas is involved with the production of insulin, which plays an integral role in blood sugar levels. Pancreatic cancer can destroy the cells that produce insulin or prevent the insulin from reaching the rest of your body. This can cause the fluctuations in blood sugar characteristic of diabetes. Early symptoms of diabetes can include having to urinate more often and feeling thirsty and hungry. However, even if you are not diagnosed with diabetes, pancreatic cancer can still cause changes to your blood sugar level that can be detected through blood tests.
It’s important to understand that many of these symptoms can be caused by other, more common conditions. For example, back pain may come from spine issues, while nausea and vomiting could be caused by a vast range of digestive issues. Having one or more of the above symptoms is not an assurance that you have pancreatic cancer.
However, if you do have any of these symptoms, it’s important to consult your doctor as soon as possible. If it does turn out to be pancreatic cancer, you can get treatment as soon as possible, but even if it’s not, it’s good to check for your own health, wellbeing, and peace of mind.