Pancreatic cancer symptoms are often absent in early stages, so many cases are diagnosed when the cancer has already grown and spread. This is one of the reasons that pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
Early detection of cancer improves the likelihood of successful treatment, especially when the cancer is aggressive, and spreads as quickly as pancreatic cancer is known to. There are two types of pancreatic cancer, exocrine tumors, which make up 93 percent of pancreatic tumors, and neuroendocrine tumors, which make up 7 percent of pancreatic cancers.
The main difference in these types of pancreatic cancer is that neuroendocrine tumors are known to be less aggressive and grow slowly. Each year, there are more than 60,000 cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed in the United States, so awareness of the symptoms and warning signs are important.
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
The most common symptom of pancreatic cancer is jaundice, the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. Bilirubin, a yellow and brown substance produced in the liver builds up when the bile duct becomes blocked. Normally, bile is released from the liver which contains the bilirubin through the bile duct.
Cancer of the pancreas can begin in the three places, the head, body, or tail. If it starts in the head of the pancreas, it is closest to the bile duct and may press on the duct, causing jaundice throughout the body quickly. If the cancer begins in the body or tail, jaundice is usually not seen until the cancer has spread to the tissues surrounding the pancreas. The liver is often the first place the cancer spreads beyond the pancreas. Despite jaundice being the most common first symptom pancreatic cancer patients experience, jaundice more often occurs in hepatitis, gallstones, or other liver and bile duct diseases.
Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
- Dark colored urine
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Pain of the back or upper abdomen
- Light colored or greasy stool
- Nausea and vomiting
Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose due to symptoms not occurring until later stages and when they do occur, the symptoms are commonly seen in other illnesses unrelated to pancreatic cancer. When pancreatic cancer is suspected, imaging tests will be used to confirm the diagnosis including:
- CT scan
- PET scan
- Endoscopic ultrasound
It is also difficult to diagnosis pancreatic cancer in the early stages because there are no pancreatic cancer specific screening tests used for those at risk. However, you should be aware of the risk factors that are associated with this illness. Some common risk factors for pancreatic cancer include smoking, obesity, diabetes, pancreatitis, and family history of pancreatic cancer. If you are at risk of developing cancer in the pancreas, you should talk to your doctor about yearly checkups and what early signs to be aware of.