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This Is Why You Should Be Worried About Your Pancreas

Catch the most crucial pancreas SOS signals before it's too late.
This Is Why You Should Be Worried About Your Pancreas

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek just announced he'll be undergoing another round of chemotherapy for his pancreatic cancer.

"I was doing so well. And my numbers went down to the equivalent of a normal human being who does not have pancreatic cancer. So we were all very optimistic," he told Good Morning America. "And they said, 'Good, we're gonna stop chemo, we'll start you on immunotherapy,'"…but "I lost about 12 pounds in a week. And my numbers went sky high, much higher than they were when I was first diagnosed. So, the doctors have decided that I have to undergo chemo again and that's what I'm doing."

It wasn't the first time this year pancreatic cancer made the headlines tied to a popular icon: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg underwent treatment, too, and successfully, it was announced this summer.

So what is pancreatic cancer—and why should you be worried about getting it yourself?

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Your pancreas, tucked away behind your stomach, is an inconspicuous organ tirelessly producing essential enzymes and hormones your body needs for digestion, and to regulate blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells form in the tissues of the organ, disrupting its necessary functions.

How is it Diagnosed?

Justice Ginsberg's cancer was caught during a routine blood test in July. If caught early, pancreatic cancer is treatable. But the vast majority of cases aren't diagnosed until it's too late—in large part because no reliable early screening test exists. And when something goes wrong with it, your pancreas has a tendency to whisper, not shout. This makes pinpointing problems particularly challenging, especially when it comes to pancreatic cancer.

How is it Treated?

There are a variety of effective forms of treatment: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Justice Ginsberg's treatment lasted three weeks. She will "continue to have periodic blood tests and scans." Trebek underwent chemotherapy and his tumors were shrinking, he said earlier this year. But now he needs more treatment. "Cancer is mysterious in more ways than one," he told GMA. "The thought of passing on doesn't frighten me," he said. "Other things do. The effect it will have on my loved ones—yes, that bothers me. It makes me sad. But the thought of myself moving on? Hey, folks, it comes with the territory."

What is the Prognosis?

According to the American Cancer Society, "for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20%, and the five-year rate is 7%," reports Pancreatic.org.

Trebek originally said he'd fight his, ending with a joke: "Truth told, I have to! Because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years." His good humor aside, the news shocked his fans—and many Americans. The "low survival-rate statistics for this disease" he said meant "the prognosis for this is not very encouraging." As for Ginsberg, she "canceled her annual summer visit to Santa Fe," according to the statement, "but has otherwise maintained an active schedule."

Discovering it early was key to her recovery. Read on to learn the warning signs we should all watch out for.

1

You Experience Nausea and Vomiting, Especially After Eating Fatty Foods

Young vomiting woman near sink in bathroom Shutterstock

Fatty foods can do a number on you, and others—for proof, just visit a men's room on a Monday morning (or don't). However, if you are repeatedly experiencing nausea and vomiting, especially after eating fatty foods like fries, pizza, or even avocados, it may be a sign that something is wrong with your pancreas. Why? Symptoms can arise when pressure from a pancreatic cyst or tumor is growing on the stomach or small intestine, causing a block of the digestive tract. As the growth becomes bigger, it can actually cause a partial block by entwining itself around the far end of the stomach.

As well, your pancreas produces digestive enzymes that help your system break down fat, among other things. Diseases that affect the pancreas tend to mess with your body's fat-digesting capabilities, leading to nausea and possible vomiting. A sudden onset of these symptoms, though, is more likely to indicate pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas.

The Remedy Rx: There are myriad reasons for an upset stomach, so don't quickly jump to conclusions. If nausea or vomiting after eating persists, make sure to see a doctor so you can find out what's going on.

2

Your Skin and Eyes Look Yellow

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Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes that occurs when bilirubin, a component of bile, builds up in the blood. Bilirubin is made by the liver as a breakdown product of old red blood cells and is usually eliminated from your body when your gallbladder releases bile.

Here's how your pancreas is involved: Bile travels from your gallbladder through the common bile duct and passes through the pancreas. But if the bile ducts become blocked—for whatever reason—jaundice may result. Jaundice can be a sign of pancreatic cancer if a tumor is growing in the head of the pancreas, obstructing the bile duct and flow of bile.

The Remedy Rx: They may be galling, but gallstones are the more likely cause for jaundice in adults than pancreatic cancer. Lower your risk of gallstones by following a healthy eating plan and regularly exercising. Here's some inspiration to get you excited about eating healthy food: 7 Must-Buy Foods on a Healthy Grocery List, According to a Dietitian.

3

Your Poop. It's Doing Funny Things, like Floating

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Oily? Greasy? Gray? Floating? If your poop is playing these tricks on you, it may be a sign of pancreatic disease. It can wreak havoc on your ability to produce the digestive enzymes that break down fats properly. The result can be funky feces. See an oily film in your toilet water after going No. 2—or find your feces floating? That's due to dietary fat that's not getting broken down by your body. And as for the pale poop phenomenon: Bilirubin gives your poop its brown color, but when your bile ducts are blocked, that color goes to monochromatic hues of gray or clay.

The Remedy Rx: Poop that's a bit "special" every now and then is nothing to freak out about. But if most of your bowel movements start to have these characteristics, call your doctor and get yourself checked out.

4

You Suddenly Get Diabetes

Woman testing insulin levels Shutterstock

If you eat a healthy diet, your weight is under control, but you become diagnosed with diabetes, it might warrant a closer look at your pancreas. This is true especially if you're over 50 and have a low BMI (body mass index), with no family history of diabetes. Your pancreas produces insulin, which regulates your body's blood sugar. When your pancreas is under attack by a tumor or disease, systems begin to fail, and it can be common for people to suddenly develop type 2 diabetes.

The same goes if you've had well-controlled diabetes for a while and suddenly find it difficult to manage the disease. Rapid shifts in diabetes status without a clear-cut rationale may be associated with pancreatic cancer.

The Remedy Rx: If you have diabetes but experience a sudden change in your blood sugar levels, be sure to let your doctor know so you can rule out a more serious problem with your pancreas.

5

You've Just Unexpectedly Lost Weight

Woman measuring waistline Shutterstock

You might be rocking the keto diet, but if you're dropping weight (too) rapidly, it could be due to digestive issues associated with pancreatic cancer or other pancreatic disorders. The weight loss may be caused by incomplete digestion either due to the cancer or as a result of the cancer itself (like when a tumor creates a stomach blockage). Unintended weight loss is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer.

The Remedy Rx: Many other health conditions can also explain sudden weight loss, like thyroid issues. If you have just unexpectedly lost weight, you should see a doctor.

6

You Experience Abdominal Pain

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Pain in your abdomen or back is a common warning sign of pancreatic cancer and acute pancreatitis, but the pain manifests differently for each. Radiating pain that extends toward the mid or lower back, which goes on for weeks, could be a sign of pancreatic cancer. The American Cancer Society shares that if a tumor that starts in the body or tail of the pancreas grows to be rather large, it can press on neighboring organs, causing pain. Sometimes, pancreatic cancer can spread to the nerves that surround the pancreas, which can result in back pain.

If the pain, however, comes on suddenly, feels intense, and is mostly in the middle of your abdomen, it's more likely to be acute pancreatitis.

The Remedy Rx: Any number of health issues can be the cause of your stomach aches or pain. And more likely than not, your upset stomach is due to a more mundane, garden-variety cause. If abdominal pain persists, however, please see your doctor. To live a happier and healthier life—don't miss these essential 70 Things You Should Never Do For Your Health.

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