Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

 

Patient reading a magazine in the doctor’s waiting room

Could you have pancreatic cancer? | iStock.com/cwzahner

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest and most aggressive cancers. It is estimated roughly 55,440 people (29,200 men and 26,240 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. If you suspect you or a loved one might have this disease, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

The role of the pancreas and the progression of the disease

The pancreas is located within the abdomen, behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that help your body digest food. It also releases hormones that help the body regulate blood sugar.

Roughly 70% of pancreatic cancers begin in the bulbous end (also known as the “head”) of the pancreas, reports Harvard Health. The common bile duct, which drains the gallbladder and liver, can become blocked by the tumor. Consequently, bilirubin, a waste product, has nowhere to go, so it enters the blood stream.

Pancreatic cancer deaths

About 44,330 people (23,020 men and 21,310 women) will succumb to the disease. Pancreatic cancer is currently the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. The organization predicts it will become the second leading cause of death in the country by 2030.

Risk factors

Who is at risk for developing pancreatic cancer? Your risk is much higher if you have a family history. If you have two or more first-degree relatives who had pancreatic cancer, a first-degree relative diagnosed with pancreatic cancer before 50 years old, or a genetic condition linked to pancreatic cancer, you could be at a greater risk of developing this disease, reports the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Signs and symptoms

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect. This is a big reason why the disease is so deadly. During the early stages there are usually no signs or symptoms. However, as the disease progresses, signs and symptoms begin to appear. Some of the signs include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes), unintended weight loss, and blood clots. Some symptoms include fatigue, appetite loss, depression, and pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to the back. Sometimes, the disease causes people to itch.

Another possible sign is diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic. When diabetes is accompanied by weight loss, jaundice, or pain in the upper abdomen that spreads to the back, this could further point to the possibility of pancreatic cancer.

Life expectancy

Only 16% of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are still alive five years after their diagnosis, reports Harvard Health. If the cancer spreads to other organs, the likelihood of living another five years decreases to 2%. Generally, those with other types of cancer tend to have a higher survival rate. For example, the five-year survival rate for patients with localized breast cancer is 86%.

When to call your doctor

If you experience several signs and symptoms, and you’re generally feeling unwell, it might be time to make an appointment with your primary care physician. This way he or she can give you a thorough examination. Part of your visit will likely involve trying to rule out other illnesses that could be causing your symptoms.

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