Signs of pancreatic cancer you shouldn’t ignore

November 20, 2023 | by NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

The pancreas is a small organ located between the spine and intestines that produces enzymes to help digest food and hormones like insulin, which help regulate blood sugar.

Pancreatic cancer occurs when healthy cells in the pancreas stop working properly and grow out of control, forming a tumor.

Because the pancreas is deep inside the body, pancreatic cancer is not easy to detect. The disease often grows or spreads undetected, with few warning signs. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is often not found until it has spread outside of the pancreas to nearby organs.

It’s important to know the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and, if they do occur, to take them seriously. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer that you should not ignore include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes), with or without itching
  • Dark urine, light-colored or greasy stool
  • Pain in the upper abdomen that may radiate to your back
  • Abdominal pain that feels worse after eating, bloating after a big meal
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss, nausea or vomiting
  • New onset of diabetes in an adult (particularly after age 50)
  • Blood clots, which may cause pain, swelling, redness and warmth in the leg
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Chest pain or trouble breathing
  • Depression

The prognosis for pancreatic cancer improves greatly when the disease is caught in the early, treatable stages. Don’t ignore more vague symptoms of the disease. If you “feel off” for more than a week or two and it isn’t related to an obvious cause, see your doctor.

Approximately 64,050 Americans this year will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer according to the American Cancer Society. Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are 65 years old or older.

The most common type of pancreatic cancer, called adenocarcinoma, begins in the cells that line the pancreas. A less common type, called pancreas neuroendocrine tumors, makes up about 2 percent of pancreatic cancers but has a better prognosis.

Treatment for pancreatic cancer is determined by the type and stage of the cancer and can include surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy or radiation.

People who experience chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), smoke, are obese or diabetic, or have a family history of pancreatic cancer or cysts, may be at higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer.

Adopting healthy behaviors, such as maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet and quitting smoking can help lower your risk for cancer.

Get regular check-ups with your doctor. If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, you may also want to meet with a genetic counselor to help determine your personal risk and discuss any screening or testing you should undergo. 

Pancreatic cancer is a journey that no one expects to take. The cancer experts at NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center will partner with you every step of the way. Learn more.

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