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Although pancreatic cancer can be treated if caught early, the signs are often subtle, and the disease is usually missed until it is in later, more serious stages. But there are some warning signs that you can watch out for.
The pancreas has two main jobs in the body: to make juices that help digest food and to make hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help control blood sugar levels. The digestive juices are made by exocrine pancreas cells, which is where about 95 percent of pancreatic cancers begin. The disease accounts for approximately 3 percent of all cancers and about 7 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), and the risk goes up with age. About two-thirds of patients are at least 65 years old, and the average age at the time of diagnosis is 71, according to the ACS.
Only 8.2 percent of pancreatic cancer patients survive for five years, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The pancreas is deep inside the body, and early tumors can't be detected by standard physical exams. People usually have no symptoms until the cancer has already spread to other organs. Even so, the NCI advises people to consult their doctor if they have any of the following symptoms:
Jaundice: This yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes is caused by the buildup of bilirubin, a dark yellow-brown substance made by the liver. Cancers starting in the head of the pancreas are near the common bile duct, according to the ACS. This type of cancer may press on the duct and cause jaundice, which could lead to finding the tumors at an early stage. But cancers that start in the body or tail of the pancreas don't press on the duct until after they have already spread through the pancreas and possibly beyond. Dark urine, too, can be a sign of jaundice, and bilirubin buildup can also lead to itchiness on the skin.
Light-colored or greasy stools: Bilirubin helps give stools their brown color, so when the bile duct is blocked, stools may be gray or pale. Pancreatic cancer can also make it difficult for the intestines to help break down fats, so stools may become greasy and float in the toilet.
Belly pain: Pain in the abdomen (belly) or back is common with pancreatic cancer. "Cancers that start in the body or tail of the pancreas can grow fairly large and start to press on other nearby organs, causing pain," the ACS says. "The cancer may also spread to the nerves surrounding the pancreas, which often causes back pain. Of course, pain in the abdomen or back is fairly common and is most often caused by something other than pancreatic cancer."
Loss of appetite and weight loss: Unintended weight loss and loss of appetite can be warning signs of pancreatic cancer.
Nausea and vomiting: The cancer can press on the far end of the stomach and partially block it, making it hard for food to pass. This may cause nausea, vomiting and pain after eating.
A more detailed list of symptoms is available from ACS.
While some risk factors for pancreatic cancer cannot be controlled, such as age or genetics, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.
Stop smoking. About 20 percent to 30 percent of pancreatic cancers are thought to be caused by cigarette smoking; smokeless tobacco products are also a factor.
Lose weight. Very overweight people are about 20 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, and carrying extra weight around the waistline may be a risk factor even for those who aren't that overweight.
Limit exposure to certain chemicals. Heavy and repeated exposure to certain chemicals in the workplace, such as those used in dry cleaning and metalworking, may raise a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer.