In the UK, pancreatic cancer is the 10th most common type of cancer. From 2016 to 2018, 3% of all new cancer cases were pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is not massively rare. So, many people would probably want to know if they had it. In this article, we'll look at some of the signs of pancreatic cancer. By the end of this article, you will have a better idea of whether or not you have enough of the symptoms to talk to your doctor about a possible test.
The most common signs of pancreatic cancer include diarrhoea, jaundice, belly/back pain, poor appetite, blood clots, and diabetes.
What is cancer?
Cancer is a word that many of us often hear, but before we can talk about potential symptoms, it's wise first to understand what cancer is.
In essence, cancer is a form of cell mutation. Cells within the body can become cancer cells, growing uncontrollably.
Wherever cancer begins, because it grows without the ability to self-destruct (like most other cells have), it will spread to other parts of the body.
It becomes fatal when it grows into vital organs. For example, if it grows into someone's heart, blood will be unable to be pumped through the body. In addition, your lungs cannot filter out carbon dioxide if it extends into them.
What is the Pancreas?
However, of course, this article is not about cancer in general. It's specifically about pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is cancer that begins in the pancreas.
The pancreas might not be the most well-known of our organs, but it plays a vital part in helping us turn the nutrients in food into the building blocks of our cells.
Our pancreas creates enzymes that help break down sugars, fats, and starches. It also produces digestive hormones.
It's located just behind our stomach, which helps make the digestion and breaking down of food quicker and smoother.
It's fair to say that the pancreas is a pretty vital organ.
Signs and Symptoms of pancreatic cancer
The first symptom of pancreatic cancer is diarrhoea.
As mentioned in the previous section, if it weren't for the pancreas, our food would not get broken down. When food is not being broken down and used by the body, the system flushes it out via faeces.
Cancer cells can prevent the pancreas from creating the chemicals the intestine needs to absorb and digest food. This causes the bowels to open up more frequently, which results in diarrhoea.
However, of course, there are also plenty of other causes of diarrhoea.
Jaundice is a non-fatal condition that causes the whites of the eyes to become yellow.
This is because pancreatic cancer can sometimes block the bile duct. Bile is a chemical that our body produces to help carry waste out of our bodies.
The bile duct is a biological tube that carries bile from the liver (where it's made) to the small intestine (where it's used). However, when the bile duct gets blocked, there will be a build-up of bilirubin in the blood.
Bilirubin is an ingredient in bile. It's created as a waste product from the breakdown of old red blood cells. When it cannot follow its natural path, it builds up in the blood and causes the sclera to turn yellow when it gets to the eyes.
Stomach or back pain
Another common symptom of pancreatic cancer is stomach or back pain.
Whether someone with pancreatic cancer experiences pain in their stomach or back depends on which side cancer began and its growth direction.
Cancer cells pushing on the spine cause back pain. And stomach pain is caused when they push on the stomach.
However, regardless of whether they're on the spine or stomach, they still push against nerves, which sends pain signals to the brain.
When someone loses weight because of cancer, this is called cancer cachexia.
If you are losing weight much faster than you would expect with your current diet and exercise, it could indicate cancer.
To grow as fast as they do, cancer cells require a lot of energy. Most of this energy comes from the food we eat. Because cancer cells use energy from your diet, there is less of it to be used for storage- stored energy results in weight gain.
When someone has cancer, their body will burn calories much quicker, which results in them thinking they need less food than they do, which leads to weight loss.
Because the pancreas is the body's primary enzyme factory, some enzymes could spill into blood vessels.
Blood can sometimes clump together with enzymes in the blood vessels, leading to a blood clot.
Blood clots are often noticeable by a feeling of intense cramping pain, from which the heart has to work harder to dislodge the clot. Sudden breathlessness is another sign of a blood clot.
One of the most important chemicals that our pancreas produces is insulin.
Insulin is the hormone that helps regulate the blood-sugar levels of our body. It helps stop too much or not enough sugar in the blood system.
However, suppose the pancreas gets overcome by cancer cells. In that case, it can destroy the insulin-making cells that our bodies have naturally.
Problems with insulin can often result in diabetes.
If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, despite having a healthy diet and exercising enough, cancer may be what caused your pancreas to stop producing insulin.
Common symptoms of diabetes include increased thirst, hunger, and the need to urinate.
What to do if you think you may have pancreatic cancer
After reading this article, if you believe you could have pancreatic cancer, you should raise these concerns with your doctor as soon as possible.
If, after two weeks, any of the symptoms mentioned in this article get worse, you need to let your doctor know.
Your doctor may refer you to a specialist who will do tests to see whether or not you have pancreatic cancer. Although cancer is never pleasant, it's much easier to deal with in the early stages.
Usually, the test for pancreatic cancer is either a CT scan or a blood test.
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