The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach. It releases enzymes that help with digestion as well as hormones that help regulate blood sugar levels. Because of where the pancreas is situated within the body, if you have pancreatic cancer you won’t be able to feel a lump or mass when you press on the outside of your abdomen.
Why is it so deadly?
Unfortunately, as yet, there is no screening test or early detection method, which means most patients are diagnosed when the disease has spread outside of the pancreas and surgery is no longer an option.
Sometimes called the silent cancer because it’s hard to spot early on, patients tend not to seek treatment in the early stages, because symptoms do not usually appear until the later stages of the disease as the tumor grows. However, the chances of survival increase tenfold if a patient is diagnosed in time for surgery which is why it’s so important to understand the risks and catch any symptoms as early as possible.
What are the symptoms?
The difficulty is that the symptoms are often vague and are generally attributed to other less serious and more common conditions. We urge everyone to pay attention to their health and to consult a doctor if you have any concerns.
- Indigestion / heartburn
- Changes in stools
- Abdominal or mid-back pain
- Unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite
- New-onset diabetes
It is important to remember that a lot of different conditions can cause these and similar symptoms. Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have pancreatic cancer. However, it is a good reason to see your doctor.
Doctors will need to rule out all other possible causes for your symptoms. This means you will need different tests and it may take some time before you get your diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer is diagnosed primarily through the use of CT, MRI, EUS, ERCP scans, laparoscopy and biopsy.
Who’s most at risk?
The American Cancer Society says that the average lifetime risk of developing cancer of the pancreas in both men and women is 1 in 65. However, there are certain factors and life-style choices that might make you more likely to face the disease. because it’s so difficult to spot in the first place, prevention is the best way to stay safe:
- Family history - 10-percent of pancreatic cancer cases are thought to be genetic, or passed down from a parent
- Smoking – according to the American Cancer Society 20 to 30 % of pancreatic cancer cases are caused by smoking tobacco. Cancer Research UK notes, “It takes about 20-years after stopping smoking for the pancreatic cancer risk to fall to the same levels as those who have never smoked.”
- Being overweight - The Mayo Clinic cites anyone with a BMI of 30 or more is more at risk. A BMI of 30 is considered to be obese – so if you fall into that category is could be time to shed a few pounds
- Exposure to chemicals - If your job requires you to be around certain pesticides or chemicals for metal refining, your chances can increase, according to the American Cancer Society. The Canadian Cancer Society backs this up, noting that exposure to certain substances for than 10-years puts you in a higher risk category
- Age and gender - most pancreatic cancers form at age-55 or older and males are slightly more likely to develop it. We know there’s nothing you can do about these two but just worth noting so you can stay extra vigilant
- Bad diet – according to the experts your general diet plays a large part in determining whether your more or less likely to get the disease. The advice is:
- Eat lots of fruit and veg - Pancreatic cancer patients should eat at least 5-servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruits per day, citing recommendations from the World Cancer Research Fund International. Blueberries, oranges, broccoli, kale, and spinach, which are rich with antioxidants, fibers, and phytochemicals, all get a special mention – so get chomping!
- Get enough protein – these are the building blocks of the body, and are especially good for the pancreas. Not only can protein help your body repair damaged tissues, it can also give the immune system a boost. Try lower-fat proteins such as chicken, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, nuts, beans, and soy products
- High Fiber – eat complex carbs such as potatoes, beans, lentils, oatmeal, quinoa, and brown rice to help keep your energy levels up without spiking your blood sugar
- Alcohol consumption – We’re not talking about the occasional drink, but if you regularly drink four or five drinks an evening, you could be increasing your chances of contracting the disease according to The National Center for Biotechnology Information
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