Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Veeral M. Oza, MD

Pancreatic cancer is a silent killer and recognizing its symptoms is important. The American Cancer Society estimates that in the United States approximately 56,000 people will develop pancreatic cancer in 2019 and of these 46,000 will succumb to the disease. In South Carolina alone, that estimates to about 1,000 new cases in one year. Of the 1,000, about 800 patients will not survive. This is why raising awareness of this condition and diagnosing it early is key.

The pancreas is an organ that measures about six to seven inches long and sits behind the stomach. It is involved in the secretion of hormones and enzymes that help to regulate your metabolism and the levels of chemicals such as glucose.

Most cases of pancreatic cancer occur after the age of 60 and rarely before the age of 40. The largest risk factors for pancreatic cancer are:

  • Smoking
  • History of chronic pancreatitis or inflammation in the pancreas

Early signs of pancreatic cancer are vague and non-specific making early diagnosis difficult. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Back pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pancreatic cysts
  • A new diagnosis of diabetes after age 60

Unfortunately, because of these vague symptoms, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed in its later stages, when the cancer has spread to other organs. Nonetheless, if you or someone you know has any of these vague symptoms, it is important to discuss this with your primary care physician or a gastroenterologist.

Routine screening is not recommended at this time for pancreatic cancer. However, given that 5-10% of pancreatic cancers have an inherited genetic component, there is agreement that patients with a family history need to be screened. Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS), MRI and CT scans are the primary ways the pancreas is assessed.

Let’s come together and make a promise to our families, friends and ourselves to stay aware of our own health and pay attention to warning signs of this silent killer.

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