Your pancreas is an organ that sits just behind the stomach whose main purpose is to filter bilirubin, and release enzymes that aid digestion and produce hormones that help manage your blood sugar.
Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissue of the pancreas, most commonly in the cells that line the ducts that carry digestive enzymes out.
One of the most common, early symptoms of pancreatic cancer, jaundice is a yellowing of the eyes and skin. This occurs because as the cancer spreads, it can block the duct that releases bile into the intestines and out through your stool.
This results in a build-up of bilirubin in the blood that turns the eyes and skin yellow.
Belly or Back Pain
Weight Loss and Poor Appetite
Pancreatic cancer can cause many digestive issues. However, any type of cancer can result in unexpected or explained weight loss and loss of appetite.
Any type of cancer induced weight loss is a problem because it affects the way the body burns calories and uses proteins by burning more calories than normal, breaking down muscle, and decreasing the appetite.
Nausea and Vomiting
Gallbladder or Liver Enlargement
Pancreatic cancer can cause the liver to become enlarged, especially if the cancer has metastasized. The gallbladder is usually the more evident sign of pancreatic cancer.
If enlarged, it can be felt during an exam and seen in imaging studies. When the cancer blocks a bile duct, the fluid can become stuck in the gallbladder, causing it to enlarge.
All cancer patients are more susceptible to blood clots forming during treatments. However, pancreatic cancer patients are at an even higher risk of forming Cancer Associated Thrombosis— a blood clot in the veins.
The risk is higher due to the cancer, the cancer treatments, and moving around less after a procedure. The signs of a deep vein thrombosis are swelling, redness, and leg pain.
Sudden On-Set Diabetes
As we discussed earlier, the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, whose responsibility it is to regulate a body’s blood sugar levels. It is thought by many that pancreatic cancer can cause the cells in the body to become resistant to insulin.
If you already have controlled diabetes and it becomes uncontrolled for no reason that you’re aware of, this can also be an early symptom.
Dark urine is also a sign of jaundice. Bile that is normally stored in the gallbladder to travel through the intestines to be removed from the body by stool can be blocked by a tumor.
When the bile cannot be removed, too much builds up in the body and the excess can get into the urine, staining it brown.
Bloating is having the sense of being full even if you’ve barely eaten anything. It can cause an early sense of being full with meals or it can just be an uncomfortable swelling in the abdomen.
A common condition in pancreatic patients, ascites, is extra fluid buildup in the abdomen. It can cause the belly to swell or stretch out. This is especially common in patients whose cancer has spread.
Just because you have a risk factor, or even several of them at once does not mean you have or will get cancer. Some people with few or no risk factors at all can also develop pancreatic cancer just as some people with all the risk factors will not develop it at all.
The risk factors for pancreatic cancer are smoking, diabetes, obesity, inflammation of the pancreas, a family history of pancreatic cancer, and ethnicity. According to research, African Americans have a slightly higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer than Hispanics, Asians, and Caucasians.
Testing for Pancreatic Cancer
If a person has signs or symptoms that might be caused by pancreatic cancer, there are several exams and tests that doctors will do to determine if you have it. During the physical exam, their doctor will quiz them about your medical history as well as your family’s.
The doctor will then examine the patient, looking for jaundice in the eyes and skin, and checking to see if the gallbladder or liver are swollen. If anything seems abnormal, the doctor will then order further tests such as blood tests, imaging tests, and possibly even a biopsy of the pancreas.
Once a patient is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the next step is to determine what stage the cancer is in in order to discuss the patient’s treatment options. Treatments could consist of surgery, ablation or embolization, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and/or pain control options.
Available options for treatment of the cancer depend heavily on whichever stage the cancer is in at the time of diagnosis, the patient’s age and expected life span, and any other serious conditions the patient may have.