What Are The Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?
The pancreas is deep inside the body, so even if you have regular check-ups at your doctor, early tumors can’t be seen or felt during routine physical exams.
Many people have pancreatic cancer for years before developing any symptoms. Once symptoms develop, in most cases, the tumor has become very large, or the cancer cells have already spread to other organs.
When pancreatic cancer symptoms do appear, they are often vague or similar to most other pancreatic diseases.
“The first signs of pancreatic cancer are typically abdominal or back pain that doesn’t go away, or the skin becomes jaundiced or yellow. Other symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, bloating and stool changes, along with loss of appetite, elevated blood sugar, weight loss and general fatigue,” Dr. Koffron says.
These symptoms, especially aches and pains, can come and go. And because most could occur due to a variety of minor conditions or other diseases, you can see why people go years before diagnosis.
“Because pancreatic cancer is much easier to treat when it’s found early, it’s important to pay attention to your body’s signals and talk to your doctor if something’s not right,” says Dr. Koffron.
How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?
Pancreatic cancer can’t be diagnosed in an exam, even in its latest stages and if the tumor is large, because the pancreas is very deep in the abdomen.
Typically, a patient is already experiencing symptoms that flag a doctor to perform pancreatic cancer screening tests, scans, and imaging to diagnose or rule out pancreatic cancer.
Many of these tests can also be used as pancreatic cancer screening tools for those without symptoms but who are at high risk for developing pancreatic cancer. If someone has a strong family history of pancreatic cancer, doctors can use these tests to potentially find cancer early and when it is more treatable.
The most common way pancreatic cancer is discovered is with imaging tests. There are numerous ways a doctor might want to create these pictures of the inside of your body. The three most common are:
- Computed Tomography (CT) Scans
- Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS)
- Magnetic Resonance imaging (MRI)
Unfortunately, these screening modalities are not 100 percent effective in finding small lesions, pre-cancer or early-stage cancers.
There are also blood tests some doctors order to help diagnose pancreatic cancer. Labs your doctor might request include:
- Liver Function Tests
- Tumor Markers (CA 19-9 or CEA levels)
- CBC Chemistry Panel
Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Options
Pancreatic cancer is a complicated condition to treat, specifically because it’s usually advanced by the time it is diagnosed.
Another challenge in treating pancreatic cancer is the pancreas’ location. Although it’s not a large organ, it’s deep in the abdomen and nestled right next to the blood vessels that feed other major organs and lymph nodes that make insulin and digestive enzymes. Its location alone makes it a technically demanding surgery to perform.
“The hope for any cancer – including pancreatic – is to surgically remove it using safe but aggressive techniques. When the cancer is contained within the pancreas and hasn’t spread to surrounding tissue, surgery is the mainstay of treatment,” Dr. Koffron says. “For tumors that are larger and beginning to grow but haven’t spread to other organs, we often use neoadjuvant chemotherapy, which means chemo that’s administered before surgery. It’s used to shrink or slow the tumor’s growth so it becomes possible to remove. For individuals whose disease has spread outside of the pancreas, chemotherapy and radiation are used to prolong survival.”
How To Prevent Pancreatic Cancer?
A person’s average lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 65.
Unfortunately, there is no sure way to prevent pancreatic cancer. There are risk factors such as age, gender, race, and family history that you can’t control. But you can drastically reduce your risk and help prevent pancreatic cancer by eliminating scientifically proven risk factors in your control.
Don’t Smoke or Use Tobacco: The risk of getting pancreatic cancer is about twice as high among people who smoke than those who have never smoked. If you smoke or use tobacco products, it is crucial that you quit immediately.
Maintain a Healthy Weight: If you are overweight, weight loss should be a top priority. Carrying excess body fat increases your chances of cancer. Aim to stay at a healthy weight through regular exercise and a healthy diet free of processed foods and too much sugar. Follow a diet with plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat.
Avoid or Limit Alcohol: Clinical trials have linked heavy alcohol use to pancreatic cancer. Drinking alcohol in excess can also lead to chronic pancreatitis, which is known to increase pancreatic cancer risk.
Limit Exposure to Chemicals: Some research indicates that heavy metals and compounds found in pesticides, industrial products such as CHC solvents, and even some beauty products and foods may be linked to a gene mutation in some patients with pancreatic cancer. More research needs to be done, but to be safe, you should limit your exposure to these chemicals when possible.
What You Can Do to Support Yourself or a Loved One with Pancreas Cancer