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Most People Who Have Pancreatic Cancer Feel This Symptom First

Cancer experts share what to know about pancreatic cancer and signs that indicate you could have it. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

In recent years, more people are overcoming the odds and beating cancer and while the disease has become more treatable over the last couple of decades due to advances in medicine and early detection through screenings, cancer is still the second leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease. Dr. David Seitz MD, and Medical Director for Ascendant Detox tells us, "Cancer is when abnormal cells in the body begin to grow and divide uncontrollably and then spread to other tissues and organs. According to the World Health Organization, cancer is the leading cause of death globally. It accounted for almost 10 million deaths in 2020. Cancer can affect any part of the body and there are over 200 different types. Although cancer is often thought of as a disease that primarily affects older adults, anyone can be diagnosed with cancer at any age."

But there is good news. The American Cancer Society states, "The risk of dying from cancer in the United States has decreased over the past 28 years according to annual statistics reported by the American Cancer Society (ACS). The cancer death rate for men and women combined fell 32% from its peak in 1991 to 2019, the most recent year for which data were available. Some of this drop appears to be related to an increase in the percentage of people with lung cancer who are living longer after diagnosis, partly because more people are being diagnosed at an early stage of the disease."

While there are some common signs of cancer that help someone realize they're sick and can seek medical attention sooner such as, "severe fatigue, eating problems, weight changes, changes in bowel or bladder habits, unusual bleeding or bruising, nausea or vomiting, skin changes, and persistent cough or pain," Dr. Seitz says, "pancreatic cancer is different. It's typically hard to diagnose because symptoms don't often appear until in the later stages." Afshin Safa, MD, FACR Medical Director of Radiation Oncology at Leavey Cancer Center with Dignity Health Northridge Hospital and Medical Director of Radiation Oncology at Leavey Cancer Center  Associate Professor, Department of Radiation Oncology at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA tells us, "Pancreatic cancer happens when normal cells of the pancreas mutate to abnormal cells and grow out of control.  Pancreas makes hormones and fluids that help the body digest food. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States."Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About Pancreatic Cancer

Doctor in white medical lab coat points ballpoint pen on anatomical model of human or animal pancreas

Ronald Tang, DO Board certified Hematologist/Oncologist Los Angeles Cancer Network Beverly Hospital and Los Angeles Cancer Network tells us, "Pancreatic cancer is a rare cancer affecting 13 out of 100,000 people however unfortunately it has one of the highest morbidity rates out of all cancers due to the fact that when diagnosed, it is usually advanced or metastatic." 

The Mayo Clinic explains, "Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas — an organ in your abdomen that lies behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and produces hormones that help manage your blood sugar. Several types of growths can occur in the pancreas, including cancerous and noncancerous tumors. The most common type of cancer that forms in the pancreas begins in the cells that line the ducts that carry digestive enzymes out of the pancreas (pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma)."


Pancreatic Risk Factors

Doctor examine an x-ray picture of pancreas

Dr. Tang explains, "Risk factors include tobacco and alcohol abuse with patients who suffer from chronic pancreatitis or inflammation of the pancreas which is caused by alcohol use or gallstones." Dr. Safa agees and states, "Awareness of risk factors (genetic predisposition, age, smoking, diabetes) may lead to an earlier and more aggressive evaluation for pancreatic cancer in patients who present with symptoms suspicious for the disease," according to UptoDate, a free service for dignity health doctors.

Mayo Clinic says, "Factors that may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer include:



Chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)

Family history of genetic syndromes that can increase cancer risk, including a BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome

Family history of pancreatic cancer


Older age, as most people are diagnosed after age 65

A large study demonstrated that the combination of smoking, long-standing diabetes and a poor diet increases the risk of pancreatic cancer beyond the risk of any one of these factors alone." 


Pancreatic Cancer is Hard to Screen


Dr. Tang says, "Pancreatic cancer is very hard to screen for as it is a small organ that sits deep in the abdomen and is hidden behind other organs.  Unfortunately by the time symptoms occur such as abdominal discomfort, the cancer is usually advanced or metastatic.  There are no clear screening guidelines for pancreatic cancer as opposed to breast, colon and prostate cancer."

Dr. Safa explains, "It is very challenging to screen for pancreatic cancer because the symptoms occur late when the tumors are large. There is no screening blood test or screening imaging modality. UptoDate states, "If your doctor suspects you have pancreatic cancer, they will order 1 or more tests.

These can include:

-Blood tests

-Imaging tests – These might include an ultrasound, a CT scan, an MRI scan, or a test called ERCP (which stands for "endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography"). These tests create pictures of the inside of the body and can show abnormal growths.

-Biopsy – For a biopsy, a doctor takes a small sample of tissue from the pancreas. 

Then another doctor will look at the sample under a microscope to check for cancer.To perform the biopsy, a doctor will use a CT scan or ultrasound to pinpoint the location of the mass, then insert a needle into the mass and take a sample of tissue. A biopsy may also be obtained using ERCP or a different type of endoscopic procedure called endoscopic ultrasound (EUS)."


Signs That Indicate You Could Have Pancreatic Cancer

Woman with prostate problem in front of toilet bowl. Lady with hands holding her crotch, People wants to pee - urinary incontinence concept

Mayo Clinic says, pain is a big indicator of pancreatic cancer and shares, "A growing tumor may press on nerves in your abdomen, causing pain that can become severe. Pain medications can help you feel more comfortable. Treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, might help slow tumor growth and provide some pain relief." According to Dr. Tang, "Common signs of pancreatic cancer include abdominal pain, yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice or scleral icterus), unintentional weight loss, diarrhea, nausea, and dark urine."

Dr. Safa states, "Symptoms of pancreatic cancer  include  pain that radiates  from the stomach area  to the  back. The pain can come and go, and may get worse after eating. Weight loss – People might not feel hungry, or might feel full after eating very little. Diarrhea – Bowel movements can look greasy or be difficult to flush in the toilet bowl.  Yellowing of the skin,(jaundice) – Both the skin and the white part of the eyes can turn yellow. "


Pancreatic Cancer Treatment and Survival Rate

Woman in her 30s sits by her living room window with a cup of tea and looks out contemplatively. She is a cancer survivor and is wearing a headscarf.

Dr. Tang says, "Treatment for local pancreatic cancer includes definitive surgery, radiation, and/or systemic chemotherapy.  5 year overall survival rates for pancreatic cancer are unfortunately only at 11%.  Although the rates are low, early detection is the key and if found early enough, surgery can remove the cancer which is the only modality for cure."

Dr. Safa adds, "Pancreatic cancer can sometimes be cured with treatment. This is most likely in people whose cancer is found at an early stage. Commonly,  treatment for locally advanced pancreatic cancer is to start with chemotherapy. In some cases, chemotherapy may cause the tumor to shrink. Increasingly, surgeons are then attempting to remove these tumors after several months of chemotherapy. Sometimes , radiation is given at the same time as  chemotherapy prior to surgical removal. " 

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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