The function of the pancreas is to provide the juices and enzymes necessary for digesting food. Mainly, the pancreas produces and secretes insulin, which converts sugar to glucose. In addition to sugars, the enzymes and digestive juices produced by the pancreas are also critical to how the body processes proteins, fats, and starches.
Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in the pancreas start to grow out of control and form tumors. Cancers that affect the exocrine cells, which produce digestive juices and enzymes and release them into the small intestine, are the most common type of pancreatic cancer, making up about 95 percent of all cases. Cancers that affect the endocrine cells, which produce hormones like insulin and glucagon and release them into the bloodstream, are more rare.
Like most cancers, the earlier pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, the more likely it is to be treated successfully. Unfortunately, by the time symptoms present, the cancer has often spread to other parts of the body, making treatment difficult. And while there are early warning signs, they can often be attributed to other conditions, or aging in general. So, there’s no need to panic, but you should let your doctor know if you experience any of these symptoms. These early warning signs include:
- Jaundice – Typically one of the first symptoms that people notice, jaundice causes the skin and eyes to turn yellow. It’s caused by a buildup of a dark yellow-brown substance called bilirubin, which is produced by the liver and can accumulate in the body if the bile duct is blocked by a tumor. Jaundice also causes dark urine, pale or greasy stools, and itching in the skin.
- Pain in the back or belly – If a growing tumor starts to put pressure on organs near the pancreas, it can cause pain and discomfort. Also, the cancer can spread to the nerves surrounding the pancreas, causing back pain.
- Nausea and vomiting – Because the pancreas is adjacent to the stomach, a tumor can press against it and obstruct food from passing through. In fact, pancreatic cancer patients often report poor appetite and experience weight loss.
When diagnosed early, the best option for treating pancreatic cancer is to surgically remove all the cancerous cells. However, studies show that fewer than one out of every five cases of pancreatic cancer are caught before they have started spreading to other parts of the body. And in order to be successfully treated by surgery, it has to be clear that the entire tumor can be removed, because research has shown that patients do not live longer when only part of a pancreatic cancer is removed.
Doctors may also administer chemotherapy and radiation treatments in some cases, especially those where the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas. They may also use these treatments to reduce the size of the tumor before surgery.
Because pancreatic cancer affects an estimated 55,000 people per year in the U.S., it’s important to be aware of these early warning signs and have them looked at by your physician. Also, as with most cancers, it’s important to avoid preventable risk factors, such as tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco, as well as putting on too much excess weight.