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Surprising Signs You May Have Pancreatic Cancer, Including Depression and When to Seek Help

Pancreatic cancer survivor shares his thoughts on the disease. Learn the signs of pancreatic cancer and other helpful information.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most feared types of cancer because it typically has a low survival rate. CNN reports, "About 95% of people with pancreatic cancer die from it, experts say. It's so lethal because during the early stages, when the tumor would be most treatable, there are usually no symptoms. It tends to be discovered at advanced stages when abdominal pain or jaundice may result. Presently, there are no general screening tools."

This year an estimated "62,210 people (32,970 men and 29,240 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer", according to the American Cancer Society and "About 49,830 people (25,970 men and 23,860 women) will die of pancreatic cancer." Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies tells us, " Pancreatic and ovarian cancer are two types that tend to be particularly aggressive and difficult to treat. In the case of pancreatic cancer, the tumor is often located deep within the abdomen, making it hard to reach with surgery or other treatments. Additionally, the pancreas is surrounded by vital organs, making it risky to remove the tumor without causing serious damage."

While pancreatic cancer is a life-threatening disease, it can be beatable. "I'm a six year thriver (not just a survivor) of third stage pancreatic cancer," Chris Joseph Owner of CAJA Environmental Services, LLC and author tells us. Eat This, Not That! Heath spoke with Joseph who shares his perspective on pancreatic cancer, as well as experts who explain what to know about the disease. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why Cancer is Common


Joseph states, "We have missed the boat in this country with an almost exclusive focus on cancer treatment and early detection.  We need to focus equally, if not more, on prevention and wellness.  Eating healthier, making better food choices, moving our bodies more, not relying on quick fixes (that aren't really fixed at all) by thinking we can take a pill and all will be better."

Dr. Mitchell says, "Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, with over 8 million people succumbing to the disease each year. While there are many possible explanations for why cancer is so prevalent, one of the most likely reasons is that our bodies are not designed to last forever. From a cellular perspective, our bodies constantly invent new cells to replace old ones. However, this process is imperfect, and mistakes can occasionally be made during cell division. These mistakes, known as mutations, can cause cells to grow and divide uncontrollably, eventually leading to cancer. In addition, as we age, our cells become less efficient at repairing themselves, which makes them more susceptible to developing cancerous mutations. While many factors contribute to cancer development, the fundamental explanation is that our bodies are not immortal. Over time, the accumulated damage to our cells leads to a growing number of cancerous growths, eventually leading to death."


What to Know About Pancreatic Cancer

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

Sean Marchese, MS, RN, a registered nurse at The Mesothelioma Center with a background in oncology clinical trials and over 20 years of direct patient care experience says, "Pancreatic cancer can affect vital cells that control hormones and digestion. This cancer has a poor prognosis because this organ controls blood sugar, which can negatively impact other sensitive organs, such as the brain and kidneys. It's challenging to detect pancreatic cancer early because the pancreas lies deep within the abdomen. Tumors aren't easily seen or felt and may not produce noticeable symptoms at first. 

Know the early warning signs if you are at risk for pancreatic cancer through genetics or lifestyle. Talk to your doctor about when and how to check your blood sugar. There are no tests that screen for pancreatic cancer early. However, your doctor may order imaging if you have warning signs or symptoms."


Pancreatic Cancer and Depression

Thoughtful girl sitting on sill embracing knees looking at window, sad depressed teenager spending time alone at home, young upset pensive woman feeling lonely or frustrated thinking about problems

Joseph shares he suffered from depression before his diagnosis even though he had no history of depression and life was going well so he didn't understand why he was feeling down until he realized there's a link between pancreatic cancer and depression. "I started having serious and deep depressive episodes, which was odd because my life was going really well," he reveals. "I actually was having suicidal thoughts. I sought some help via a therapist, and that took some of the air out of the balloon."

According to an article in Pancreas Journal of Neuroendocrine Tumors and Pancreatic Disease and Sciences the author Kenner, Barbara J. PhD writes, "Depression and anxiety as precursor symptoms to a physical illness have become increasingly accepted. This pairing recently appeared as the subject of a 2017 New York Times science article, which includes pancreatic cancer among the conditions that have depression as an early symptom. One of the strongest links between mental disorders preceding a cancer diagnosis was shown in a 2016 study from Sweden. The study included 300,000 cancer patients and more than 3 million cancer-free individuals (controls). The researchers found an increased risk of psychiatric illness nearly a year before the cancer was diagnosed. Mental disorder diagnoses peaked shortly after cancer diagnosis. In addition, the mental disorder diagnosis rate elevation was stronger for cancers with poor prognosis.

A large group of participants drawn from national health surveys of England and Scotland participated in a long-term study examining the relationship between psychological distress and death from cancer. More than 163,000 men and women, cancer-free and older than 16 years, joined at the start of the study. They self-reported psychological symptoms while allowing their health records to be tracked by the researchers. The results show evidence that psychological distress might have some predictive capacity for certain cancers, including pancreatic cancer."


Signs of Pancreatic Cancer


Marchese says, "You should be aware of signs of jaundice (yellowing eyes or skin), changes in urinary or bowel habits, and unexpected weight loss. You may also experience back or abdominal pain, fevers, nausea, vomiting, indigestion or blood clots."

According to the Mayo Clinic, "Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don't occur until the disease is advanced. They may include:

  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
  • Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Itchy skin
  • New diagnosis of diabetes or existing diabetes that's becoming more difficult to control
  • Blood clots
  • Fatigue"


How to Reduce the Risk

Woman eating sugary junk food

Joseph explains, "About nine out of 10 cancers are non-hereditary…meaning we have to look at what is happening in terms of the food we eat (or don't eat), the sad reality that we've become a sedentary society and are moving our bodies less, we are eating more processed food, we have the highest obesity rate in the industrialized world (with associated disease/illness), our medical system ranks very poorly compared to other industrialized countries (though we spend a ton for not-so-good outcomes), we consume about 25 percent of the world's prescription pharmaceutical drugs but our population is a small fraction of the world's population. I could go on.

If I had to name a couple of key things (not easy to do) I would say cut down on processed sugar. The amount we put in our bodies today as compared to say, 150 years ago, is astounding. Second, become aware of what you put on, in, and around your body and home at all times. Becoming healthy/staying healthy is hard work. But getting/dealing with cancer is infinitely more difficult."


When to See a Doctor

doctor patient closeup fatty liver disease

The Mayo Clinic says, "See your doctor if you experience any unexplained symptoms that worry you. Many other conditions can cause these symptoms, so your doctor may check for these conditions as well as for pancreatic cancer."

Marchese explains, "Many treatments exist for pancreatic cancer, such as chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy. Targeted therapies, such as Tarceva and Lynparza, work differently from chemo. They can help minimize systemic damage compared to other treatments, such as chemo. Palliative care, less invasive options, can also reduce symptoms and improve quality of life." 

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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