Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in the pancreas multiply and grow out of control, resulting in a mass of tissues. The mass is sometimes benign (non-cancerous) but is malignant in pancreatic cancer. It often goes undetected to the advanced stage as the early stages don’t show any symptoms. Hence the survival rate is less compared to other cancers.
Understanding your pancreas
The pancreas is a pear-shaped spongy organ that measures 6 to 10 inches long. It sits behind the lower part of your stomach. The pancreas performs two main functions: release enzymes that support digestion and produce hormones, including insulin, that control blood sugar. According to Hopkins Medicine, pancreatic adenocarcinoma is the most common type of exocrine cancer that accounts for more than 90% of diagnoses.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer:
The location of the tumour in the pancreas plays a vital role in the type of symptoms and how soon they start to show. Symptoms appear earlier when cancer occurs in the head of the pancreas compared to the body and tail.
1. Abdomen and back pain
This is the most common symptom. The tumour occurring in the body or tail of the pancreas increases in size and begins to press the organs nearby, including the spine. Patients describe pain starting in the belly and radiating to the back that worsens when lying down. The pain, however, vanishes on leaning back.
Pancreatic cancers that start in the head of the pancreas press on the nearby common bile duct. It blocks the duct and prevents bile (that contains bilirubin) from reaching the intestines. Eventually, bilirubin builds up and causes jaundice. Sometimes, jaundice can lead to an early diagnosis of cancer. Symptoms of jaundice include
- Yellowing of eye and skin
- Dark-coloured urine
- Itchy skin
- Light-coloured greasy stools that float
3. Enlargement of gallbladder or liver
As mentioned, a tumour in the head of the pancreas blocks the bile duct. It results in bile buildup in the gallbladder, enlarging it. Occasionally, pancreatic cancer may spread to the liver and enlarge it. Your healthcare provider can feel both enlargements through physical examinations and imaging tests.
According to the NCBI, diabetes occurs in 50 to 80% of people with pancreatic cancer. Since pancreatic cancer may damage and destroy cells that secrete insulin, it causes blood sugar levels to elevate. It may result in a very uncommon sudden onset diabetes, which must be checked immediately to diagnose/rule out pancreatic cancer.
5. Unintended weight loss
Sudden, unexplained weight loss is an alarming sign and yet another common symptom of pancreatic cancer.
6. Gastrointestinal issues
When the growing tumour presses on the stomach and digestive system, it may cause loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, indigestion, and bloating.
7. Extreme tiredness
What causes pancreatic cancer?
There is no clear answer. However, factors that increase the risk include
- Chronic pancreatitis (permanent inflammation of the pancreas due to smoking or drinking)
- Heredity chronic pancreatitis, inherited by the child from parents
- Family history of genetic syndromes
- Smoking or chewing tobacco
- Type 2 diabetes
- Older age, people aged 50+ are more susceptible
Men are slightly more susceptible to pancreatic cancer than women. However, the symptoms and risk factors remain the same. All pancreatic cancer symptoms are common and more likely to be confused with other diseases. Should you notice yourself exhibiting them, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Early-stage pancreatic cancers are most curable compared to when in the advanced stage