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Pancreatic cancer is one of the most daunting diseases to overcome and the third most deadly cancer in the U.S. Unfortunately, that statistic is expected to climb.
“While pancreatic cancer only accounts for 3% of all U.S. cancer diagnoses, it makes up seven percent of all cancer deaths,” says Armando Rosales, MD, surgical oncologist who focuses on pancreatic, liver, hepatobiliary and other gastrointestinal cancers.
One of the factors that contributes to pancreatic cancer’s high mortality rates is that it often doesn’t show significant symptoms until it has progressed. Not to mention, early screening for pancreatic cancer is challenging.
But what if there are more subtle signs? What should you bring up to your primary care physician that might lead to an early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer? We’re here to help answer those questions.
Raising Awareness of Pancreatic Cancer and Its Symptoms
The hope is that with more attention on the disease, people will recognize their symptoms earlier. That can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatments that improve outcomes.
“Pancreatic cancer is known for being a disease that doesn’t show major symptoms until the cancer has advanced significantly, but the main message is to know your body and if something doesn’t seem right — don’t delay in talking to your primary care doctor as a first step,” advises Dr. Rosales.
That said, here are some symptoms to keep in mind so you can feel informed and prepared to take an active role in protecting your health.
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
One of the difficulties in diagnosing pancreatic cancer early is that it often presents differently among patients.
Pain in Your Side
Feeling chronic pain in your side between your ribs and hips could be a symptom of appendicitis, an inflamed gallbladder or pancreatitis. All of these conditions can cause a serious, potentially lethal infection if not treated immediately. So, if you have any new pain in your abdomen, it’s advised to get it checked out by your doctor.
“Stomach or abdominal pain can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer, but it can vary from patient to patient. One patient might have a severe pain, while others have a more non-specific symptom or no pain at all,” explains Dr. Rosales.
The most important thing is to listen to your body. If a pain or discomfort is not going away after a week or so, discuss it with your doctor.
Jaundice or Yellowing of the Skin
“Jaundice can be caused by many other diseases, but it is a common first sign of pancreatic cancer,” says Dr. Rosales.
Jaundice is a yellow pigment that appears in the white of your eyes or skin. This can occur with pancreatic cancer because it can occur near or press on the common bile duct, which delivers bile from the liver to the small intestines to break down digestive fat. Bile contains a yellow-brown substance called bilirubin, which can build up in the body if the bile duct is blocked by a tumor.
If pancreatic cancer spreads to the liver, that can further contribute to developing jaundice.
Additional symptoms of jaundice include:
- Darker urine
- Itchy skin
- Lighter and greasier stools
Unexplained Weight Loss and Lower Appetite
Dr. Rosales states, “A decreased appetite and unintended weight loss are common symptoms of any malignancy, including pancreatic cancer.”
Because the pancreas plays a role in digestion by producing insulin, it’s possible that pancreatic cancer can interfere in the normal digestive process, leading to these two symptoms.
Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
"It's also important for people to be aware if they have risk factors for pancreatic cancer, so you can be more aware to symptoms and talk to your doctor about how you can monitor your pancreatic health,” advises Dr. Rosales.
Some of these risk factors can include:
- Family history of pancreatic cancer
- Personal history of chronic pancreatitis
- Exposure to environmental carcinogens
“More recent research has correlated obesity with a 20% greater chance of developing pancreatic cancer, which is significant,” says Dr. Rosales.
With younger populations experiencing obesity, symptom awareness across all generations is important.
Diagnosis and Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer
There are no easy screenings for pancreatic cancer, but for those with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer or with a known genetic syndrome that increases their risk, endoscopic ultrasounds can be performed voluntarily as a “screening” measure.
To diagnose pancreatic cancer, an MRI, CT scan or endoscopic ultrasound are often ordered. “Like all other cancers, the earlier we can find it and initiate treatment, the more probable it is to achieve better outcomes for the patient,” states Dr. Rosales.
Know the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and talk to your primary care doctor about any changes in your health and wellness. Working together, there’s hope to stand up to pancreatic cancer with earlier detection and better outcomes.
Dr. Rosales concludes “Pancreatic cancer is known for being an aggressive disease, but we’re working on changing that with more awareness and research discoveries that may lead to more effective screening and treatment measures.”
Learn more about AdventHealth’s comprehensive whole-person approach to cancer care.