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Silent Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer Seniors Need to Know

What every senior should know about pancreatic cancer, according to experts. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers because typically symptoms don't start appearing until the later stages. Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies tells us, "The chance of survival for pancreatic cancer is low because there isn't an agreed-on screening test for the disease, and early detection is complex and sometimes an incidental finding. Also, due to the location of the pancreas, it isn't an organ that is easy to palpate on a physical exam. Instead, pancreatic cancers tend to be asymptomatic in the early stages, which is the ideal time to diagnose this cancer. Finally, a lack of awareness of our bodies and not knowing the subtle signs of cancer can increase your chances of being blind-sighted by a terrible diagnosis." That said, there are silent signs to be aware of, which Dr. Mitchell explains below. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss Already Had COVID? These Symptoms May "Never Go Away".


Who is at Risk for Pancreatic Cancer and Why?

risk of cancer

Dr. Mitchell explains, "If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, then your risk of pancreatic cancer increases. Also, suppose a family history of rare gastrointestinal cancers increases your chance of pancreatic cancer. In that case, pancreatic cancer risks have a genetic connection—and knowing your family history is essential. People who smoke, drink excess alcohol, or carry extra weight are at higher risk of pancreatic cancer."


Abdominal Pain

mature woman experiencing stomach pain from fatty liver disease

"We have all had abdominal pain at some point in our lives, and as a result, one might not be as aware that this can be an ominous sign," Dr. Mitchell states. "From constipation, menstrual cramps, or a night out drinking, and for many other reasons, abdominal pain is a common symptom. Constipation is a common cause of abdominal pain, and polypharmacy (being on five or more drugs) can increase your chances of pain. Also, some commonly prescribed medications can contribute to constipation, so one has to be very mindful of the potential side effects of drugs and realize constipation. However, common symptoms can signify that something sinister is going on in the body.

However, as we mature, abdominal pain is a symptom that should not be ignored. As the pancreas is found in the abdomen, pain in this area should be a red flag.  Recurring pain that radiates to your back is cause for concern. Frankly, abdominal pain is a symptom that shouldn't be ignored at all stages of life. Signs and symptoms are our bodies' way of trying to tell us that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. As pancreatic cancer grows, it pushes on other organs and surrounding nerves, contributing to the pain."


Loss of Appetite and/or Weight Loss

Feet standing on a scale.

Dr. Mitchell shares, "In clinical practice, loss of weight or loss of appetite is a concerning symptom or 'red flag.' Most of us would agree that it is typically easier to gain weight than lose weight—hence the billion-dollar weight loss industry. In my mind, weight loss in seniors is cancer until proven otherwise. Cancer needs the energy to grow—it will steal the power you need to get going and have that bounce in your step. Cancer's need for energy contributes to why a senior with pancreatic cancer might have weight loss. At all stages of life, we must make conscious efforts to eat a balanced diet. For example, some seniors are known to have the 'tea and toast' diet, which might lead to nutritional deficiencies in the body, resulting in weight loss and fatigue. When you give your body the right fuel at the right time, it will be easier to detect subtle body changes that might indicate cancer."


Yellowing Of The Skin

Women scratch itchy arm with hand.

Dr. Mitchell explains, "Yellowing of the skin, called jaundice, can directly result from 'blocked plumbing' in the gastrointestinal system. For example, pancreatic cancer can physically block the duct that releases bile (which is yellow) into the intestine. This causes a backup of the system, turning our skin yellow, turning the white of the eye yellow, and can cause itchiness of the skin."



According to Dr. Mitchell, "Energy changes and chronic fatigue are red flags for pancreatic cancer and other significant illnesses or diseases. To understand the causes of fatigue, we must understand the purpose of the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ that has critical functions in the body. The pancreas creates proteins, or enzymes, that help break down food so it can be converted to energy. Pancreatic cancer affects the ability of the pancreas to perform this function, resulting in an energy deficit. The person with cancer would feel this, which would be described as fatigue. The fatigue can play into a vicious cycle and contribute to loss of appetite, which further contributes to weight loss.

We mustn't blame fatigue or low energy simply for getting older. Doing this will increase the chances of one missing severe health challenges, like pancreatic cancer and other cancers. This fatigue doesn't necessarily improve after resting, and this should be a red flag."


Blood Clots


Dr. Mitchell says, "Pancreatic cancer has been shown to cause the body to be in a hypercoagulable state, or another way of saying, cancer causes the blood to 'thicken' and form clots. The state change is clinically significant and dramatically increases an individual's risk of developing clots. Pancreatic cancer creates the perfect environment for clots because of the massive inflammation the cancer causes. If you are experiencing unexplained blood clots (i.e., Deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism), cancer should be high on your clinician's differential diagnosis. Signs of a blood clot in the leg could be redness, pain, or warmth in the area." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

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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