Pancreatic cancer is the fourth deadliest cancer in the world. Since this cancer is hard to detect and treat, the survival rate is extremely low, hovering somewhere between 7-25%.
The pancreas is part of the digestive system and is buried within the abdominal cavity (behind the stomach and in the upper part of your abdomen). Because of its location, it can be difficult to feel tumors before they’ve grown out of control. Furthermore, there’s no screening test for this type of cancer.
Looking for clues to pancreatic cancer is vital for early detection and treatment. Though some of the signs and symptoms of this cancer resemble other health conditions such as cirrhosis, diabetes, or liver disease, it’s important to visit your doctor if you notice any abnormalities.
Below are 8 warning signs of pancreatic cancer:
Research has shown that 40% of pancreatic cancer patients had been diagnosed with diabetes one or two years before discovering that they had a pancreatic tumor. Researchers believe that the diabetes is caused by tumors that simply haven’t been detected yet. The problem though, is that diabetes is very common, and the majority of diabetes cases will not be related to pancreatic cancer, and so doctors are trying to come up with screening tools to tell the difference. Right now, they say that family history is an important clue. If you’re diagnosed with diabetes that has come out of the blue, and you have no history of diabetes in your family, bring this to your doctor’s attention and ask for further screening for pancreatic cancer.
2. Itchy Hands and Feet
Even a small pancreatic tumor can block the bile duct, and if this occurs, bile starts to build up in the body. When there is too much bile in the blood, it starts to turn into compounds that cannot be broken down by the body. These compounds accumulate in the hands and feet, causing persistent itching sensations.
3. Yellowing Eyes and Skin
The buildup of bile mentioned above is known as jaundice, and it causes other symptoms beyond itchy palms and feet. One such symptom is yellow eyes and skin. Bile has a bright yellow pigment, and when too much of it is present in the body, it will start to show up in the whites of the eyes and through the skin.
4. Lack of Appetite and/or Changes in Taste
An Italian study found that 6-8 months before being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, patients reported a sudden decrease in their appetite, and a tendency to feel full after eating very little. This is because the lack of digestive enzymes can shut down your whole system and confuse your stomach.
The same study also found that patients suffering from a pancreatic tumor also suddenly lost their taste for coffee, alcohol, and smoking. In fact, some even declared that they felt disgusted by the smell and taste of coffee and alcohol.
5. Pale, Floating, Smelly Stools
If a pancreatic tumor prevents digestive enzymes from reaching the intestines, the result is an inability to digest fatty foods. Therefore, as a result of this excess fat, you end up with loose, smelly floating stools. Doctors say that this symptom, in particular, is an early clue of pancreatic cancer, but it is too often overlooked.
6. An Enlarged Gallbladder
The same blockage of the bile duct that causes jaundice can also cause the gallbladder to enlarge, as the bile builds up behind the duct. The good news though is that an enlarged gallbladder can be seen on imaging tests, and it is sometimes possible for a doctor to feel it during a physical exam.
Those suffering from pancreatic cancer typically experience some form of abdominal pain. This is more of a gnawing pain, rather than a sharp cramp or ache, and it usually radiates towards the back. A characteristic clue of abdominal pain possibly being caused by a pancreatic tumor is the pain disappearing when you lean forward, or getting worse after you eat or lie down.
8. Unexplained Weight Loss
This symptom is common to most cancers, especially in more advanced stages. However, if a pancreatic tumor is developing, it may prevent your body from digesting food thoroughly. This means that fat and sugar might pass right through your system undigested.
What to Do If You’re Worried About Any of These Symptoms
Document all your symptoms and report them to your doctor in as much detail as possible. If your doctor believes that you have legitimate concerns, tests such as an ultrasound, CT scan, and an endoscopy followed by a biopsy can be used to search for a pancreatic tumor. A blood test is also available that looks for a biomarker called CA 19-9 that’s released by pancreatic cancer cells. Unfortunately, though, by the time CA 19-9 reaches a detectable level, the cancer is no longer in its early stages.