The symptoms can often go unnoticed, making it all the more important to be aware of them and act early.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 29, 2020
Pancreatic cancer is known to be one of the most silent diseases of them all. Because the symptoms are barely noticeable in the early stages, the diagnosis may not happen in time. The one way to tackle this is by building more awareness about it. When you know the symptoms to watch out for, it can give you the chance to start your treatment early and fight cancer away. Seemingly unnoticeable things like a change in the color of your urine or even loss of appetite can tell you that something might be wrong and you shouldn’t ignore it.
In America, the third leading cause of deaths by cancer is said to be pancreatic cancer, preceding even breast cancer in the list. And by 2020, forecasts say that it could be the second leading cause for cancer deaths in the United States. It was estimated by the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research that about 55,440 people in America would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the year 2018 alone, while it will cause the death of 44,330.
Location is said to be extremely important when pancreatic cancer starts appearing. On one hand, If it starts growing in the head of the pancreas, symptoms start to appear early on. On the other hand, if it starts growing on the body or the tail of the pancreas, it may silently and painlessly grow. Symptoms only start getting noticeable when the cancer is large enough and has started spreading outside the pancreas.
As the symptoms can be so vague and could point to a number of different conditions, knowing about these symptoms can be extremely crucial. However, these symptoms can also arise due to other problems like an infection. Therefore, don’t jump to conclusions when you notice these signs because only a doctor can give you the proper diagnosis.
One of the first and most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer is said to be the development of jaundice, which leads to the yellowing of your eyes and your skin. Jaundice starts to develop when there is an increase in the level of bilirubin in the body. Bilirubin is a substance that’s produced by the liver, having a dark yellow-brown color, and it’s usually excreted by the liver as part of a liquid referred to as bile. The bile passes through the common duct, makes its way to your intestines and it plays a role in breaking down fats in your body. Ultimately it exits your body along with your stool. However, the bilirubin in your body starts increasing when the common bile duct gets blocked. Because of this, the bile can’t make its way to your intestines and eventually exit your body.
When cancer begins appearing, even fairly small amounts are enough to start at the top of the pancreas near the common bile duct. This may be a good thing because when the cancer presses against the duct, it can lead to jaundice which allows the tumor to be found at the initial stage.
However, when cancer begins in the body or the bottom of the pancreas, they might not press against the duct in the early stages. Only after the cancer spreads through the pancreas will it start pressing against the duct. Pancreatic cancer often spreads to your liver which eventually can lead to jaundice as well.
The first clue that points towards jaundice is the change in the color of your urine. Because of the increased bilirubin in your blood, you may notice that your urine has become brown. When there’s no bilirubin reaching your intestines, your stool might be different as well. They might look pale or gray in color and be greasier than usual. Another effect that the increased bilirubin causes is the yellowing of your skin, which might also itch.
Effects on the digestive system
In the entire digestive process, the pancreas has an essential role to play. When a tumor develops in your pancreas, it is said that your pancreas stops making enough juices to aid the digestive process. You might also experience pain when there’s a block in your digestive tract. It can lead to some of the following symptoms or a mix of several of them:
The tumor can affect the hormones and enzymes that are important for smooth digestion. Pancreatic cancer can lead to an increase in the level of acid present in your stomach. If it starts pressing against on one end of your stomach, it can block the area and make it hard for food to pass through. This can cause you discomfort and make you feel sick in the stomach. You might feel nauseous, feel like vomiting and generally slow down on your appetite because you’ll find that the symptoms get worse after having a meal.
If it’s the VIPoma tumor (which is said to be an uncommon pancreatic tumor) that’s been growing in your body, it may release vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) in your body. Because of this substance, more water is sent to your digestive system. You may experience severe diarrhea when there is excessive water in your intestines.
The nausea and the vomiting can slow down your appetite or make it harder for you to eat. Because of the decrease in digestive juices, your body won’t be able to process the nutrients from the food you eat. This means that even on your regular diet, you may start getting weaker or lose weight.
Experiencing pain in your belly or back can be caused due to multiple reasons. However, it can also be caused when pancreatic cancer starts spreading. If the cancer grows fairly large in size, it can start pressing against the organs nearby and make you feel pain. When the tumor is growing, it may start to press against the nerves and cause pain as well.
One of the more rare effects of pancreatic cancer is diabetes. When the insulin-making cells in your body are destroyed, it may lead to high blood sugar, making you feel thirsty and hungry. You might even feel like urinating more often than usual.