Pancreas is situated behind the stomach, with its head on the right side and its tail (the narrowest part) on the left side of the abdomen. The tail lies next to the spleen. This is an important organ as it contains both exocrine and endocrine glands that regulate digestion and blood sugar levels. The exocrine glands release juices (enzymes) which promote digestion of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. The islets of Langerhans release insulin and glucagon, the two mutually antagonistic hormones which regulate blood glucose levels. Cancerous tumors in the pancreas interfere with its function, and so exhibit certain symptoms. Men are more likely to develop this cancer than women.
The exact cause of the cancer is unknown. But smoking, aging, being a male, family history of similar type of cancer, diabetes, chronic inflammation (chronic pancreatitis), presence of gallstones, and alcohol abuse increase the risk of this cancer.
Adenocarcinoma (cancer of the exocrine glands) is the most common type of this cancer. It is the most aggressive one too. Pancreatic neuroendocrine carcinoma or 'islet cell tumor' is the cancer of the endocrine glands present in it. Depending upon the type, overall health of the person, and stage of the cancer, various symptoms are seen. They may vary from person to person.
Signs and Symptoms
- Lethargy: As the tumor develops, it seriously affects various processes related to pancreatic enzymes and hormones. Impaired digestion and fluctuations in blood glucose levels lead to excessive weakness and fatigue.
- Weight loss: Weight loss without any reason or effort indicates problem in the body systems.
- Indigestion: Since pancreas aids in food digestion, dysfunction of the organ leads to several problems like indigestion, gas, etc. These are actually the early signs of cancer that are always neglected.
- Jaundice: As the tumor interferes with the bile duct, and affects the liver function, pale/yellowish skin and yellow eyes (whites of the eyes turning yellow) are noticed. Color of the urine becomes dark yellow.
- Abdominal Pain: Severe pain in the upper part of the stomach or abdomen (as the tumor pushes against the nerves) is experienced.
- Change in appetite: As the exocrine and endocrine glands get affected by the disease, the person notices a change in the appetite. Loss of appetite is a common symptom of various diseases and disorders, and hence it is always overlooked.
- Diarrhea: As the food ingested is not digested properly, one may experience diarrhea. In the absence of essential enzymes, the digestive system becomes weak.
- Back pain: The abdominal pain slowly shifts to the back. Back pain may be felt after the meal, or even when the person is lying down.
- Nausea and vomiting: Many times, impaired function of pancreas results in nausea and vomiting sensations.
- Changed color of stools: The stools may appear gray or clay-colored. As the tumor blocks the bile duct, the color of the stools changes. The stools may give out a strange odor. Steatorrhea (excess fat in stools) is also noticed.
- Paleness of skin: Due to digestive system problems and weakness, skin appears pale. Eyes may appear white or yellowish. Some people may experience itchy skin.
- Digestive system disorders: As release of certain enzymes is seriously affected, various stomach problems develop.
- Diabetes: Since the condition affects insulin and glucagon function, the person develops diabetes, and experiences severe fluctuations in blood sugar levels. This can lead to dizziness, muscle spasms, and weakness, etc.
- Fever: Fever is often accompanied by chills and shivering. The patient may feel excessively thirsty all the time.
- Trousseau's sign: Suddenly, blood clots are developed in the portal blood vessels, in deep veins of the arms and legs, or in other superficial veins.
All these signs and symptoms can make the person nervous. So, depression can be noticed in the patients. When the cancer metastasizes or spreads into other organs, pain in that area, and other symptoms related to dysfunction of the invaded organs are seen.
According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of overall cancer death. The high death rate is attributed to diagnosis of the disease in the advanced stage. In the U.S. alone, more than 38000 people are diagnosed with this type of cancer every year. Early detection of the disease can help increase the life expectancy of the patient. Excessive consumption of alcohol, smoking, etc. increase the chances of having this cancer. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can help maintain the health of the digestive system. The most important thing is that you should never neglect the symptoms exhibited by your body.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.