Despite being relatively rare, pancreatic cancer is one of the more frightening cancers. While it accounts for only 3 percent of cancer diagnoses each year, pancreatic cancer causes 7 percent of cancer deaths. In honor of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, this post describes the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of the disease.
What Is the Pancreas?
Located near the stomach and liver, the pancreas is around 6 inches long, wider at the head and tapering toward the end. It is part of your digestive system, releasing secretions that help your body process sugar and digest food.
What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?
The main reason pancreatic cancer has a high mortality rate compared to other types of cancer is that it has few early warning signs. What’s more, those signs are far more often a sign of non-cancerous issues.
One of the most common early warning signs for all cancers is unexplained weight loss. If you experience unintended weight loss, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Additional symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
- Jaundice: Some pancreatic cancer tumors press against the bile duct of the liver. This creates a buildup of bilirubin in your system, which typically causes the eyes and skin to take on a yellow cast. Other signs of jaundice include dark urine, stools that are light in color or greasy, and itchy skin.
- Blood clots: A blood clot in a large vein of the leg (aka deep vein thrombosis) is another early warning sign of the disease.
- Enlarged gallbladder or liver: If the bile duct is blocked, bile builds up in the gallbladder, which then becomes enlarged. The liver may also become enlarged, particularly if the cancer spreads.
- Nausea and vomiting: The tumor may press against the stomach, blocking it so that food can’t get through. In addition to nausea and vomiting, patients may experience pain that gets worse after they eat.
- Onset diabetes: It’s rare, but a tumor in your pancreas may cause onset diabetes. This is because the pancreas produces insulin, which helps your body process sugar.
- Pain in the back or belly: The tumor may press on surrounding organs, causing pain in the abdomen. The cancer may also cause pain if it spreads to surrounding organs or nerves.
- Poor appetite: One reason for unintended weight loss is that patients often have little to no appetite.
Please note that, even if you experience all of these early warning signs, it does not mean you have pancreatic cancer. Each symptom has much more common, non-cancerous causes. For example, jaundice is much more likely to be caused by gallstones. There are also myriad reasons you might experience belly or back pain, nausea and vomiting, etc. But, experiencing these symptoms is reason to talk to your doctor. As with all cancers, early detection greatly increases survival rates.
Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors
When it comes to disease, there are two types of risk factors: Those you can control and those you cannot. Pancreatic cancer risk factors you can’t change include:
- Age: Risk increases after age 45, with two-thirds of patients being over age 65; the average age of diagnosis is 70
- Gender: Your risk is greater if you are a man
- Race: African Americans are at greater risk than Caucasians
- Family history: A history of pancreatic cancer in your family increases risk, although most diagnoses do not occur in people with a family history of the disease
- Genetic syndromes: Certain inherited gene mutations raise your risk
Lifestyle choices also play a significant role in increasing – or decreasing – your cancer risk. For pancreatic cancer, these include:
- Smoking makes you twice as likely to get pancreatic cancer
- Obesity, particularly a BMI of 30 or higher, raises your risk by 20 percent
- Type 2 diabetes (falls under lifestyle as following a healthy diet and exercise regimen helps prevent type 2 diabetes)
- Chronic pancreatitis caused by smoking and alcohol consumption
- Exposure to chemicals used in dry cleaning and metal working
Preventing Pancreatic Cancer
Now that you know the risk factors, you can help prevent pancreatic cancer by not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, limit alcohol use to reduce risk of chronic pancreatitis.
Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer
Your initial consultation should begin with a discussion of your symptoms, so make note of when you first experienced any early warning signs. Expect your provider to ask about the risk factors listed above, particularly your family history and whether you smoke. Your doctor should also conduct a physical exam, focusing on the abdomen, which may reveal a swollen liver or gallbladder.
Tests for jaundice include checking your skin and the whites of your eyes for yellowing. Your doctor may also ask whether you’ve noticed changes when you urinate or move your bowels. Blood work also helps diagnose or rule out cancer.
If the doctor finds cause for concern, he or she may order imaging tests and/or refer you to a gastroenterologist. This is a doctor who specializes in the digestive system.
A variety of imaging tests help detect pancreatic cancer. These include:
- CT (computed tomography) scan
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
Your doctor may also order any of these tests to rule out causes of your abdominal pain or other symptoms.
Medicare covers a wide array of screenings and tests, but not all of them. Ask your doctor whether Medicare covers tests ordered by your provider.
Understanding Your Medicare Options
The licensed agents at Medicare Solutions can help you understand your Medicare options. Just call us toll-free at 855-350-8101. You can also use our online plan finder tool to begin comparing options in your area.