Pancreatic cancer has the unceremonious title of the ‘King of Carcinoma‘ where it kills so quickly because it isn’t typically diagnosed until too late.
At the moment, the rate of new cases of pancreatic cancer stands at around 13.2 per 100,000 people per year, but terrifyingly, just 7% of people with pancreatic cancer survive more than five years and less than 2% after ten years. Today, we will explore how this organ which receives very little attention and awareness can be so devastating.
Understanding the pancreas – an organ you can’t afford to ignore
The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen. It is spongy, about six to ten inches long, and is shaped like a flat pear or a fish extended horizontally across the abdomen. It is well hidden, surrounded by bigger organs including the small intestine, liver, and spleen. A healthy pancreas produces the correct chemicals in the proper quantities, at the right times, to digest the foods we eat.
- Exocrine function (digestion): The pancreas contains exocrine glands that produce enzymes important to digestion. The pancreatic juices and bile that are released into the duodenum, help the body to digest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
- Endocrine function (hormones): The endocrine component of the pancreas consists of islet cells (islets of Langerhans) that create and release important hormones directly into the bloodstream. Two of the main pancreatic hormones are insulin, which acts to lower blood sugar, and glucagon, which acts to raise blood sugar.
Maintaining proper blood sugar levels is crucial to the functioning of key organs including the brain, liver, and kidneys.
It could be signs of pancreatic cancer if you are experiencing these three symptoms:
- Sudden and unexplainable issues with digestion, appetite loss, and weight lost
- Sustained pain on the upper left abdomen or back pain, which seems to worsen during nighttime
- Jaundice includes yellow skin and eyes, dark-coloured urine, and pale coloured stools
We recommend getting a proper body check and look out for pancreatic cancer when you experience these symptoms without
As is with any cancer, early detection can mean a world of difference, and this is especially true for pancreatic cancer.
Why does diagnosis come so late?
1. Symptoms are not obvious, and easily dismissed as belly pain
Early symptoms of pancreatic cancer is similar to certain digestive conditions, and can also be confused with other health issues such as gallbladder confusion and hepatitis.
On top of ‘common’ symptoms, the well-hidden location of the pancreas can mislead the patient to think that pain is coming from the stomach, since it is behind the stomach.
2. Well-hidden location complicates diagnosis
Pancreatic cancer is hard to find early. The pancreas is deep inside the body, so early tumors can’t be seen or felt by health care providers during routine physical exams. In addition, there are no effective screening tests for pancreatic cancer.
All this means people usually have no symptoms until the cancer has become very large or has already spread to other organs.
CT scans are often used to diagnose pancreatic cancer because they can show the pancreas fairly clearly. They can also help show if cancer has spread to organs near the pancreas, as well as to lymph nodes and distant organs. A CT scan can help determine if surgery might be a good treatment option.
If your doctor thinks you might have pancreatic cancer, you might get a special type of CT known as a multiphase CT scan or a pancreatic protocol CT scan. During this test, different sets of CT scans are taken over several minutes after you get an injection of an intravenous (IV) contrast.
3 recommendations on protecting your pancreas
- Yearly medical check – In order to diagnose pancreatic cancer early, the best way is to do regular checks. For regular folks, one checkup per year is sufficient, however for those belonging in high-risk group and have family history of pancreatic cancer, we suggest two checks every year.
- Persisting stomach pain – As we have mentioned earlier, since the pancreas is tucked in behind the stomach, we could mistakenly attribute abdomen pain to the stomach rather than the pancreas. Therefore, we recommend getting a check with your ‘stomach’ pain persist.
- Don’t over-indulge on food, avoid excessive smoking and alcohol – Drinking a lot of alcohol and smoking over a long period of time can cause chronic pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas caused by a buildup of trapped enzymes. In turn, chronic pancreatitis increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. Remember, the next best time to quit is tomorrow!
Are you in the high-risk group for getting pancreatic cancer?
A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or family history, can’t be changed.
Here are some of the risk factors known to increase your risk for pancreatic cancer.
Risk factors that can be changed are tobacco use, being overweight, diabetes, and chronic pancreatitis
Risk factors that can’t be changed are age (almost all patients are older than 45), gender (men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women), and family history.