When you read the word “pancreas,” quickly say the first thing that comes to mind. If you say “cancer,” you’re not alone. Most people think of the pancreas when they hear about pancreatic cancer – the deadliest type of cancer with a 5-year survival rate. “One of the reasons for the low survival rate is that pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect early,” said Andrew Hendivar, M.D., director of pancreatic cancer research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Early detection of non-cancerous pancreatic disorders is also difficult.
Located deep in the abdomen, the pancreas is a long, flat organ that produces enzymes and hormones that aid in digestion. Symptoms of pancreatic disease can be alarming, but Eberle and Hendivar say there are some warning signs that should prompt you to call your doctor. Here are 5 of them.
Your poop looks funny.
If you notice that your stools are pale in color and spongy, this is a sign of poor nutrient absorption. “Enzymes produced by the pancreas help digest fats in your diet,” Hendivar explains. In addition to breaking down fat, the pancreas helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, E and K, he said.
Pancreatic disease impairs your organs’ ability to properly produce these enzymes, and the result is pale, loose stools. You may also notice that your stool is oily or greasy. “Toilet water will have a film like oil,” Hendevar said. These are dietary fats that your body hasn’t been able to break down, he explains.
If your poop looks funny every now and then, don’t panic. But tell your doctor if all or most of your bowel has these characteristics.
Your insides hurt.
Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of both pancreatic cancer and acute pancreatitis, a potentially fatal infection, Hendivar said. But this pain manifests itself in different ways depending on the underlying condition. Eberl says that if the pain starts in your middle and lasts for several weeks before “spreading” to your middle or lower back, it could be a sign of pancreatic cancer. Also, tell your doctor if you have previously seen a doctor and been prescribed a medicine called a proton pump inhibitor, such as omeprazole (Prilosec) or esomeprazole (Nexium), if your symptoms do not improve. Doctors often misunderstand pancreatic cancer — pain caused by reflux or other digestive problems — proton pump inhibitors can help, Hendivar said.
On the other hand, if the pain comes on suddenly and is severe and concentrated in the middle of the abdomen, it’s more likely to be due to acute pancreatitis, Eberl says.
In any case, don’t panic. Hendivar says many health problems, some serious but minor, can cause stomach aches and pains. Just go to the doctor.
Diabetes can turn heads.
The pancreas produces hormones that help the body produce insulin and control blood sugar levels. It’s common for people to develop type 2 diabetes when the pancreas is dysfunctional, he said. If your weight is under control and you follow a healthy diet, a new diagnosis of diabetes should prompt a thorough pancreatic exam.
The same is true when a woman with diabetes suddenly finds it difficult to manage her disease. “Without a clear explanation, we’re seeing sudden changes in diabetes status associated with pancreatic cancer,” he said.
Nausea after eating a burger.
Hendivar says nausea and vomiting are symptoms to watch out for, especially if you eat high-fat meals. Again, the pancreas produces enzymes that help the digestive system break down fat, so diseases that damage the pancreas can impair fat absorption and cause nausea. “Hamburgers often cause nausea, as do avocados and nuts, which are high in fat,” she says. “Pizza is a really hard way for pancreatic patients.” Eberl says pancreatitis is more likely to cause sudden vomiting and nausea than pancreatic cancer.
You are losing weight.
It is interesting to evaluate your new diet. But if you’re losing weight, especially if you’re experiencing the widespread pain described above, the weight loss could be due to pancreatic cancer or digestive problems related to the disease, Hendevar says. Thyroid problems and other medical conditions can explain rapid weight loss. In any case, you need to meet someone.