Pancreas is a small organ situated behind the stomach. It contains two different types of glands: endocrine and exocrine. The hormones which control the blood-glucose levels, insulin and glucagon, are released by the endocrine glands while the digestive enzymes are released by the exocrine glands. Dysfunction of the pancreas can therefore affect digestion and blood-glucose levels seriously. But, the early symptoms of pancreatic cancer are vague and are similar to signs of other common diseases. Therefore, these signs are generally overlooked.
Statistics show that men are more susceptible to this cancer than women. The exact cause of the cancer is unknown. However, the risk factors include excessive consumption of alcohol, excessive smoking, aging, being male, family history of pancreatic cancer, diabetes, chronic inflammation of pancreas (chronic pancreatitis), presence of gallstones, etc. The cancer of the exocrine glands in the pancreas is known as adenocarcinoma of the pancreas and is very aggressive by nature. The cancer of the endocrine glands of the pancreas is called pancreatic neuroendocrine carcinoma or islet cell tumor. The early symptoms may vary according to the type and stage of the cancer, age, and overall health of the person.
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Itching (pruritus) of the palms, soles of the feet, back, abdomen, and arms
- Pain in the upper abdomen, pain that is relieved by leaning forward
- Sudden detection of diabetes
- Changes in taste, for example, suddenly feeling disgust for the smell and taste of coffee or alcohol
- Enlarged gallbladder detected in routine checkup
These early signs and symptoms can be noticed in various situations. Therefore, they are not taken seriously. If you have noticed two or more of these early warning signs, then you should consult your physician and undergo an MRI scan. As no specific symptoms are exhibited by the cancer in early stage, it is often called a 'silent killer'.
- Digestive-system problems: The release of pancreatic enzymes is affected seriously by the growing tumor in the pancreas, leading to various stomach problems like indigestion, gas, loss of appetite, diarrhea, etc.
- Pain: Growth of tumors in the pancreas leads to abdominal pain which shifts towards back. The pain can be felt especially after meals. Lying down does not help lower the pain.
- Jaundice: As the cancer blocks the bile duct and affects the function of the liver, signs of jaundice such as pale or yellowish skin, yellow eyes (whites of the eyes turning yellow), are noticed. Dark-yellow urine with strong smell and dark, tarry stools are noticed. The stools turn dark if there is bleeding in the upper intestine. Since pancreatic enzymes do not work, digestion of fatty foods is seriously affected. This may result in loose, smelly floaters. Actually, pale, floating, smelly stools is an early sign of pancreatic cancer.
- Abnormal Blood-Glucose Levels: Abnormal levels of insulin and glucagon lead to serious fluctuations in blood-sugar levels. The person is unexpectedly diagnosed with diabetes. Severely abnormal blood-glucose levels can result in dizziness, muscle spasms, and weakness.
- Weight Loss: Weight loss without any reason or effort is a sign of serious disease.
- Fever: Fever with chills and shivering is common in patients diagnosed with this cancer.
- Blood Clots: The cancer may lead to sudden development of blood clots in the peripheral blood vessels. Clots may develop in deep veins of the arms and legs, or in the superficial veins.
- Depression: All these symptoms can lead to constant fatigue, excessive tiredness, lethargy, etc. This can make the person nervous. Depression is also one of the symptoms that may be observed.
Regular diagnostic tests can help detect the cancer at an early stage. The growth of the cancerous cells can be controlled, and the life expectancy of the patient can be increased with proper treatment if the disease is detected at an early stage.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.