Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, about 57,600 Americans will be diagnosed with the disease this year. What you learn about pancreatic cancer today, might help you or a loved one with the disease tomorrow.
The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen, located behind the stomach and in front of the spine, which is responsible for our body’s digestion and blood sugar regulation. Pancreatic cancer begins when abnormal cells within the pancreas grow out of control and form a tumor.
A major challenge with this condition is that it often goes undetected because symptoms rarely occur until advanced stages of the disease. And, with no standard diagnostic tool or established early detection method for pancreatic cancer, it’s difficult to diagnose early.
The good news is that if it’s caught early, pancreatic cancer is curable. When diagnosed in its more treatable stages, patients may be eligible for surgery, which offers the best chance for controlling the disease long-term. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is often found too late when surgery is no longer an option.
The key to early detection is being aware of risk factors and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Since symptoms can be vague or not show until cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body, there typically aren’t any “early” signs.
Even once the cancer has grown, the most common symptoms can be subtle. These include: pain (usually abdomen or back), weight loss, yellowing of the skin/eyes (jaundice), loss of appetite, nausea, stool changes, pancreatitis, and recent-onset diabetes.
There are several established risk factors for pancreatic cancer, but the most important is cigarette smoking. Smokers are twice as likely to develop the disease. Other significant risk factors are obesity and environmental, including heavy exposure to certain chemicals such as petroleum compounds, solvents, dyes, and metal refining chemicals. Family history, diet, race, gender, age, diabetes, and pancreatitis can also determine one’s risk.
Research studies have identified some genetic factors that may increase a person’s risk for developing pancreatic cancer. This is especially significant if the individual has multiple family members who have had cancer at a young age.
Lifestyle changes and overall health approaches may reduce your risk including quitting smoking, drinking less, and maintaining a healthy weight.
Pancreatic cancer may cause only vague symptoms, but if you experience one or more of the above unexplained symptoms that are abnormal and persist, it’s time to see your physician. Remember, early detection saves lives.
Dr. Alejandro Carvajal is a hematology/oncology physician in the Rose Bove LaRose Cancer Center at Day Kimball Hospital. For more information about oncology services at Day Kimball Healthcare visit www.daykimball.org/cancercare.