Pancreatic Cancer: Recognizing Symptoms
More than 170 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, daily, and is the 10th most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S., and the third leading cause of cancer death. The pancreas is a gland located between the stomach and the spine and is responsible for helping digestion and hormones that control blood sugar levels. Pancreatic cancer develops when abnormal cells grow out of control and form tumors or masses. Changes to DNA will cause pancreatic cancer to develop. Smoking, diabetes, being overweight, chronic pancreatitis, and certain genetic factors can all contribute to developing pancreatic cancer. About 10% of pancreatic cancer is considered hereditary and comes from a parent. If you are a relative of someone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you may have a higher risk of developing the disease.
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Because the pancreas is located deep inside the abdomen, it is difficult for doctors to feel a tumor in a physical exam. Because there is no single test to determine if pancreatic cancer is present, diagnosis can be more difficult, and doctors may need to conduct multiple tests to determine a diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer symptoms can often have vague, unexplained symptoms like abdomen pain, weight loss, and nausea but knowing the signs and symptoms can help catch the disease early on.
- Back or stomach pains- pain in the abdomen or mid-back may be caused by a tumor pushing against nerves or organs, potentially blocking the digestive tract.
- Bloating- digestive problems can accompany pancreatic cancer, which may include gas and bloating. Extra fluid can collect in the abdomen and cause the belly to swell and stretch.
- Poor digestion-people with pancreatic cancer often have problems digesting food and absorbing nutrients.
- Unexplained weight loss- cancer can cause weight loss due to the body burning more calories than usual, breaking down muscle, and decreasing appetite.
- Yellow skin and eyes- jaundice may occur when bilirubin builds up, due to a tumor blocking the bile flowing from the gallbladder into the small intestine.
- Changes to stools- some patients experience diarrhea, constipation, or both. The pancreas helps the body break down food and when the digestive system is not working properly, food can be difficult to pass.
- Diabetes- type 2 diabetes may be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer, especially in patients with a low body mass index.
Treating Pancreatic Cancer
Standard treatment for pancreatic cancer includes surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Additionally, patients may take part in clinical trials, when available. Surgery often offers the best chance of controlling pancreatic cancer. But, because many patients are diagnosed in the later stages of the disease, surgery is not always an option for treatment. Stroma, a protective layer of tissue that surrounds the pancreas, also makes treatment difficult. Stroma creates a barrier that can prevent treatments from reaching the cancer. Tests are needed to detect pancreatic cancer earlier and not in the later stages. Until a more accurate diagnosis is possible, patients must be resilient in recognizing symptoms early and talking with their doctors.
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