Pancreas is a gland around 5 inches long and located right behind the stomach. This gland is shaped like a tiny pear that lies on its side, and it is divided into three parts; the head, the body and the tail. This pancreas has two main functions. First, to produce the digestive fluids which is required to neutralize the acids produced by our stomach and also to break down the food that we take in. The second function is production of hormones like insulin which is required to metabolize sugar.
If you try and feel your pancreas from outside, you cannot as it is located behind the stomach, the liver, the gallbladder, spleen and the small intestines and in front of the spinal cord. When the tissues of the pancreas has an abnormal growth of cells, pancreatic cancer is said to have occurred. It is very difficult to detect the health condition, hence it's important that one knows what are the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer so that one can start off with the treatments soon.
Before we look into the symptoms, let us first see what are the main causes of this problem. Researchers have pointed out that this is the fourth common cancer in men and the fifth common in women. This occurs mainly in people who are above the age of 50 and rarely before this age. Scientists are still trying to figure out the exact cause.
However, they have found out certain reasons which increases the chances. Let us see what they are.
- An unhealthy diet containing fat, or red or processed meat and sugar increases the chances of pancreatic cancer. Also if one's diet contains less fibers, then again the chances increase.
- A person who has a history of diabetes or a problem of enlarged pancreas or stomach ulcer, is also at a risk of suffering from this problem.
- Obesity; it can also be genetic although that is a rare cause.
- Too much smoking can also lead to this cancer.
The symptoms vary on the basis of which section of the gland has been affected; whether the head, the middle or the tail. An early detection of these symptoms is difficult and they do not appear until the disease reaches an advanced stage, hence, sometimes this cancer is also known as the 'silent' disease. Some of the symptoms are pretty vague and common like stomach pain and loss of weight.
Given below are some of the common symptoms in men as well as in women. Whenever one shows any of these symptoms, one should go to the doctor immediately and also get checked for pancreatic cancer.
- Jaundice is one of the main signs and symptoms, where the whites of the eyes and also the patient's skin turns yellow. This might be a symptom of the cancer affecting the head of the pancreas (around 80% of the cancer occurs in the head of the pancreas). When the cancer starts spreading, the tumor completely or partially blocks the bile duct. Due to this, the movement of the bile slows down and this in turn leads to the increase in the level of bilirubin in the blood which causes yellowing of the eyes and skin.
- Severe pain in the upper part of the stomach or abdomen, which slowly shifts to the back, is another sign. This happens when the tumor pushes against the nerves. The pain increases mainly 3 to 4 hours after a meal or sometimes when the person is lying down. When pain in the abdomen occurs, that is a sign that the cancer might have affected either the tail or the middle section of the pancreas.
- Appetite loss is another symptom of pancreatic cancer, although this is a common symptom of several other diseases and infections. This usually indicates that there might be some problem in the stomach, hence it's best that one visits the doctor soon.
- When the cancer of the pancreas affects the head of the gland, tremendous weight loss is another sign and symptom. This weight loss is unintended and along with the pain in the abdomen, this is one of the first symptoms in women as well as in men.
- Another symptom is that the color of the stool and the urine of the patient changes. The stool becomes pale in color mainly clay color, which might occur as the tumor has blocked the bile duct. The stools also gives out a strange and strong smell. Excess fat is also released along with the stool. This condition is called steatorrhea. The urine on the other hand becomes much darker in color.
- The patient might also suddenly get diabetes. This occurs as the pancreas loses it's ability to produce insulin.
- The skin of the person also becomes itchy, although this is a rare symptom. If this symptom is accompanied by pain in stomach and jaundice, then one has to go to the doctor immediately just to be sure.
Other Common Symptoms
- Fatigue and loss of energy
- Bloating of stomach after meals and indigestion
- Nausea and vomiting
- The person also goes into depression
- Fever accompanied by shivering
- Constant thirst
If these symptoms are detected during the early stages, then the patient can be cured by surgically removing the affected part. The surgery most commonly used is the Whipple procedure where the head of the pancreas along with the duodenum, a part of the stomach and some of the surrounding tissues are removed. Total pancreatectomy can also be carried out where the entire pancreas along with the bile duct, the gallbladder, the spleen, the duodenum and some of the tissues around the affected areas, are removed.
Chemotherapy is also a treatment for pancreas cancer. Since most of these symptoms are similar to various other diseases and infection, one has to be very careful, specially when one crosses the age of 50 years and visit the doctor and get checked for pancreatic cancer as well. With proper care and treatment, a patient can be easily cured.