Pancreatic cancer is the eighth most common cancer for women and the 10th most common cancer for men in the United States. Since the late 1990s, the number of new cases of pancreatic cancer has gone up by about 1% each year. Pancreatic cancer is also the fourth leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. This is because it is difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer early.
While most people don’t have any symptoms when pancreatic cancer is in its early stages, there are several pancreatic cancer symptoms you should know about. As such, you’re likely wondering, what are the first warning signs of pancreatic cancer?
Read on to learn more about the pancreas, how symptoms of pancreatic cancer can differ depending on the type and location of the cancer, and which early detection imaging tests can potentially improve outcomes.
The pancreas is an organ in the digestive system with many important functions. It has three main parts: the head, body, and tail. It’s located in the abdomen behind the stomach and next to the first part of the small intestine, the duodenum.
It’s also near the gallbladder and liver, connected to them by tubes called the common bile duct, bile ducts, and pancreatic ducts. The liver, gallbladder, and pancreas are necessary for transporting bile and digestive enzymes for the digestion of food.
The pancreas has two main types of pancreatic cells: exocrine and endocrine. The exocrine gland is responsible for secreting enzymes that help us digest food. The endocrine gland secretes hormones including insulin and glucagon to manage blood sugar levels.
People can develop pancreatic cancer from either exocrine or endocrine cells. The most common type of pancreatic exocrine cancer is pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Pancreatic endocrine cancer, or neuroendocrine cancer is quite rare, making up less than 5% of all pancreatic cancer cases.
There are many known risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer. It’s more common in older men, possibly because men tend to smoke more than women. Smoking is a major risk factor — people who smoke are three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared to people who don’t.
Those who consume more than the daily recommended amount of alcohol (more than two drinks per day for men and more than one for women) may also be at higher risk. This is especially the case for those with a history of chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).
People with a family history of pancreatic cancer are also at higher risk, as some genetic mutations that increase the risk of various cancers such as pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer can be inherited, or passed down. Other risk factors include type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Many times, pancreatic cancer doesn’t cause symptoms in its early stages. While this makes it very difficult to diagnose, it also highlights the importance of early detection. Research has shown that people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer with no symptoms have a better prognosis than those who have symptoms.
Although people can be asymptomatic, there are potential symptoms of pancreatic cancer to know about. Let’s take a closer look.
Other symptoms may include:
Symptoms can vary depending on the tumor's location in the pancreas. For example, a tumor in the pancreas head can block the common bile duct, which can cause the gallbladder to become distended with bile. This can lead to pain in the right upper abdomen due to inflammation in the gallbladder, also called cholecystitis. In such cases, pain is often associated with nausea, vomiting, and jaundice.
Pancreatic tumors of the body or tail are much less common, making up only one-third of all pancreatic cancers. These tend to present much later and are more advanced as they take longer to cause symptoms.
Symptoms may also depend on the type of pancreatic cancer. Neuroendocrine tumors of the pancreas can secrete different hormones that cause various symptoms. For example, a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor that secretes insulin, also known as an insulinoma, can cause symptoms associated with low blood sugar. These symptoms can include lightheadedness, confusion, weakness, and loss of consciousness.
Other symptoms that develop can arise from complications of pancreatic cancer. One condition commonly associated with pancreatic cancer is blood clots. This can happen in the blood vessels around the tumor and throughout the body. Blood clots can even appear on the skin, a condition called Trousseau syndrome, or migratory superficial thrombophlebitis.
Another known complication of pancreatic cancer is type 2 diabetes. As cancer invades the pancreas, the cells that make insulin are invaded, resulting in elevated blood sugar and leading to diabetes over time. Pancreatic cancer is also known to increase insulin resistance, meaning it takes more and more insulin to keep blood sugar levels stable.
Currently, there’s no single blood test that can detect pancreatic cancer. When someone has symptoms suggestive of pancreatic cancer, a series of blood tests are done in combination with imaging tests to support a diagnosis. Some blood tests include:
Many imaging tests and procedures can help in diagnosing pancreatic cancer. Imaging tests include computed tomography (CT scan), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Procedures such as endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) are an accurate method to get pancreatic tumor biopsies to confirm the diagnosis.
Pancreatic cancer treatment depends on the type, location, and whether it’s localized (limited to the pancreas) or has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body). Treatment options may include surgical resection or removal of the tumor, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy. Cancer care also focuses on controlling common symptoms such as pain, nausea, and vomiting.
While there’s no current recommendation for regular screening for pancreatic cancer in people of average risk, there are recommendations in place for those who are high risk. High-risk people include those with a family history of pancreatic cancer or those with a genetic syndrome or genetic mutation that increases their risk of pancreatic cancer.
Even if you don’t smoke, consume alcohol in moderation, and exercise regularly to live a healthier lifestyle, it can still be hard to know if you’re at risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Aside from knowing what are the first warning signs of pancreatic cancer, one quick and easy way to assess your risk is Ezra’s cancer risk calculator. This free tool can give you a better idea of your risk of pancreatic cancer in just five minutes.
Unsurprisingly, pancreatic cancer has better outcomes when caught early. Since most cases don’t cause symptoms in their early stages, it’s hard to diagnose early to optimize outcomes.
However, when people are diagnosed when their pancreatic cancer is localized, their five-year survival rate is up to 10 times more than those who have cancer that has already spread upon diagnosis.
It’s time to take it one step further by considering Ezra’s Full Body MRI, which assesses 13 organs (including the pancreas) and can potentially detect cancer as well as over 500 other medical conditions. This not only arms you and your family with information but also gives you the peace of mind that you’re being proactive about your health and future. Don’t wait until you have symptoms. Take charge of your health today.