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Pancreatic cancer is known as one of the most daunting diseases to overcome. This might be because it’s the third most deadly cancer in the U.S. and is expected to be the second deadliest cancer by 2020.
“About 56,770 people are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, with 45,750 dying from the disease. And while pancreatic cancer only accounts for 3% of all U.S. cancer diagnoses, it makes up seven percent of all cancer deaths,” says Dr. Alexander Rosemurgy. “Through research, surgical innovations and experience, our long-term survival rates for our patients are far higher than national averages. It is important for patients to be treated at centers with high volumes that specialize in pancreatic surgery.”
What are the, albeit more subtle, signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer? What should you bring up to your primary care physician that might lead to an early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer?
Alex Trebek, host of the gameshow “Jeopardy!” is asking some of these questions, after a diagnosis of Stage IV pancreatic cancer just months ago.
Raising Awareness of Pancreatic Cancer and Its Symptoms
Trebek recently partnered with the World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition to star in a public service announcement (PSA), in which he sets out to bring more awareness around pancreatic cancer and its symptoms.
The hope is that with more attention on the disease, people will recognize their symptoms earlier, which can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatments that improve outcomes.
In the PSA, Trebek was quoted as saying, "I wish I had known sooner that the persistent stomach pain I experienced before my diagnosis was a symptom of pancreatic cancer.”
“Pancreatic cancer is known for being a disease that doesn’t show major symptoms until the cancer has advanced, 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. Alexander Rosemurgy. “Patients will often have nonspecific symptoms that can be attributed to something else, such as pain in the stomach or back, decrease in appetite or unexplained weight loss. The pancreas is located behind the stomach, making symptoms difficult to recognize.”
That said, here are some symptoms to be aware of, 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 often presents differently among patients.
Pain in Your Side or Back
Feeling chronic pain in your side or back could be a symptom of many different disorders or diseases, some of which are not very serious and are very common. Unfortunately, this pain can also represent very serious disorders and should warrant a visit to your primary care doctor. If you have any new or notable 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 a more non-specific symptom or no pain at all,” explains Dr. Rosemurgy.
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 other diseases, but it can be a first sign of pancreatic cancer,” says Dr. Rosemurgy.
If you turn a yellowish color and your eyes, in particular, look yellowish that warrants prompt attention. This can occur with pancreatic cancer because it can press on the common bile duct, which delivers bile from the liver to the small intestines. Bile contains a yellow-brown substance called bilirubin, which can build up in the body if the bile duct is blocked by a tumor. “Patients who present with jaundice often present with an earlier stage disease than patients with other symptoms. Whereas the other symptoms are more vague or easily attributed to other things, yellowing of the skin and eyes is an alarming symptom that will bring patients in to their physician more quickly,” states Dr. Rosemurgy.
Additional symptoms of jaundice include:
- Darker urine
- Itchy skin
- Lighter stools
Unexplained Weight Loss and Lower Appetite
Dr. Rosemurgy states, “A decreased appetite and unintended weight loss can be non-specific symptoms of 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 of symptoms and talk to your doctor about how you can monitor your pancreatic health,” advises Dr. Alexander Rosemurgy.
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. Sharona Ross, a colleague of Dr. Rosemurgy’s and a pioneer in robotic pancreatic surgery.
She adds, “With younger and younger populations experiencing obesity, it’s possible to start seeing pancreatic cancer in younger people that we haven’t typically seen, which makes awareness of these symptoms among obese patients particularly 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 as a “screening” measure. Blood tests for diagnosing and staging pancreatic cancer are in development.
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 for curing pancreatic cancer” states Dr. Rosemurgy.
World Pancreatic Day
As we approach World Pancreatic Cancer Day on Nov. 21, we’re calling our communities to feel empowered by taking their whole health into their own hands — and with our help along the way.
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. Rosemurgy, 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.