Pancreatic cancer symptoms are often not found early — a reason why the pancreatic cancer survival rate is low. Learn about pancreatic cancer causes and risks.
Located behind your stomach and in front of your spine, your pancreas is a large gland that produces digestive enzymes and hormones (insulin and glucagon) to regulate blood sugar. It’s an organ that’s crucial for health.
When a malignancy develops in the pancreas, the consequences can be deadly, especially if the cancer isn’t found early, when treatment has the best chance of being successful. Unfortunately, that’s frequently the case: pancreatic cancer is now the fourth cause of cancer deaths in American adults annually, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are several reasons for the delay in diagnosing the cancer. Because the pancreas sits deep inside the body, small tumors aren’t felt by a doctor during a physical exam. In addition, it can take a long time for pancreatic cancer symptoms to develop and become obvious. Early pancreatic cancer symptoms may be mild and dismissed as indigestion. What’s more, pancreatic cancer may have metastasized to other areas of the body before the disease is discovered, making treatment more difficult.
Although researchers are learning much about the cancer and how to treat it, rates of pancreatic cancer have continued to rise by almost 1.2 percent each year over the last decade, the CDC points out.
That’s why it’s important to learn about pancreatic cancer symptoms and to understand potential pancreatic cancer causes.
Pancreatic cancer symptoms
Pancreatic cancer symptoms include:
- Pain in the abdomen or back
- Unexplained weight loss
- Jaundice (yellowing of skin or eyes)
- Itchy skin
- Darker than normal urine, which may become brown in color
- Light-colored or greasy appearing stools
- Loss of appetite
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
Remember, many symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer, like back or stomach pain and a change in appetite, have multiple explanations and, most often, do not indicate cancer. However, if you have any unexplained health changes that might be a sign of pancreatic cancer, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network advises talking to your doctor.
More potential pancreatic cancer symptoms
The American Cancer Society points out pancreatic cancer symptoms can also include gallbladder enlargement, if the cancer blocks bile ducts. Your doctor may discover this as a lump under the right side of your ribcage during a check-up, or it may show up on imaging tests.
Pancreatic cancer may cause your liver to enlarge, too. It’s most likely if the cancer has spread to that organ. Sometimes, a physician can feel a larger-than-normal liver just below the ribcage during a physical, or the enlarged liver may be revealed in a CT scan or other imagining technique.
Occasionally, the first sign pancreatic cancer has developed is a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) — a blood clot in a large vein, usually a leg. Symptoms can include pain, swelling, and warmth. Without treatment, the clot may travel to the lungs, causing a potentially life-threatening pulmonary embolism.
Although it makes sense to note this association with pancreatic cancer, most blood clots are not caused by that malignancy.
Another relatively rare pancreatic cancer symptom: diabetes caused by pancreatic cancer destroying insulin-making cells. Symptoms can include frequent urination and unusual thirst. However, pancreatic cancer is more likely to cause minor changes in blood sugar levels — not enough to result in diabetes symptoms but enough to register as abnormally high on blood glucose tests.
Understanding the pancreatic cancer survival rate
The American Cancer Society provides survival statistics for pancreatic cancer based on the SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) database maintained by the National Cancer Institute. The SEER information documents the pancreatic cancer survival rate over five years.
Not surprisingly, the five-year survival rate is highest, 34 percent, when there’s no sign the cancer has spread outside the pancreas. When the malignancy has spread from the pancreas to nearby lymph nodes or other structures, the survival rate is 12 percent and, if the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body far from the pancreas, the survival rate drops to three percent over the course of five years.
However, if you or someone you know has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, these statistics do not tell the whole story, the American Cancer Society emphasizes. People recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer likely have a better outlook than the SEER numbers show, because treatments are improving — and the latest NCI statistics only go up to 2014.
What’s more, your age, overall health, whether the tumor can be removed surgically, and how well your specific cancer responds to treatment all play a role in the success of pancreatic cancer treatment.
Take charge of pancreatic risk factors
The causes of pancreatic cancer are not clear in most cases. However, there are known factors that may raise the risk of the disease and strategies that might help to prevent it or aid in finding the malignancy early.
For example, if you develop pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), follow all medical treatment carefully and work with your doctor to avoid chronic pancreatitis, which is one of several potential pancreatic cancer causes.
The National Cancer Institute points out you can be proactive with lifestyle changes to lower two established risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer — smoking and being overweight.
If your family history includes several cases of pancreatic cancer, that doesn’t mean you are doomed to develop the disease, but it does increase your risk. Make sure your doctor knows your family history, and discuss whether more frequent screenings, including imaging tests, are right for you.
Also, ask about genetic testing if you have a family history of genetic syndromes that increase cancer risk, including a BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome (a type of colorectal cancer associated with potential pancreatic cancer causes), and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome. If you test positive, your doctor may suggest adding imaging or other tests to your regular check-ups to look for early signs of pancreatic cancer.
June 21, 2019
Janet O’Dell, RN