Pancreatic cancer is caused by the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the pancreas, a large gland that’s part of the digestive system. Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the type, location and stage of your cancer (how far it’s spread) so acting on the symptoms as soon they arise is imperative to improving outcomes. In the early stages, a tumour in the pancreas does not usually cause any symptoms, which can make it difficult to diagnose, according to the NHS.
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One of the first noticeable symptoms, however, is pain in the back or stomach area – which may come and go at first and is often worse when lying down or after eating, explains the health site.
This is a commonly reported symptom, with 70 percent of people with pancreatic cancer visiting their doctors because they experience pain, says Cancer Research UK.
People describe it as a dull pain that feels as if it is boring into you, explained the charity.
“It can begin in the stomach area and spread around to the back. The pain is worse when you lie down and is better if you sit forward. It can be worse after meals,” said the health body.
It added: “Some people may only have back pain. This is often felt in the middle of the back, and is persistent.”
Other early warning signs of pancreatic cancer include:
- Unexpected weight loss
- Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice) – it also may cause dark Yellow or orange pee, pale-coloured poo and itchy skin
Other possible symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
- Feeling sick and being sick
- Changes in bowel movements (diarrhoea or constipation)
- Fever and shivering
- Blood clots
You may also develop symptoms of diabetes if you have pancreatic cancer – this is because the tumour can stop the pancreas producing insulin as it normally would, explains the NHS.
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Who is at risk?
While it is not known what causes most pancreatic cancers, unhealthy lifestyle decisions may increase your risk.
Smoking, for example, is a major risk factor associated with pancreatic cancer. A large Cancer Research UK study looking at lifestyle factors found that nearly one in three pancreatic cancers may be linked to smoking.
Carrying excess weight has also been associated with pancreatic cancer risk and a recent study conducted in the US underscores the potential impact of carrying excess weight.
According to results presented at the AACR Annual Meeting 2019, excess weight before age 50 may be more strongly associated with pancreatic cancer mortality risk than excess weight at older ages.
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The finding is significant because pancreatic cancer is more common in older people, suggesting that earlier health interventions may reduce the risks associated in later life.
To conduct the research, researchers examined data from 963,317 U.S. adults with no history of cancer who enrolled in the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II, a nationwide study of cancer mortality that began in 1982 and followed participants through 2014.
All participants reported their weight and height just once, at the start of the study, when some were as young as 30 while others were in their 70s or 80s.
The researchers used this information to calculate body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight relative to height, as an indicator of excess weight.
During the follow-up period, 8,354 participants died of pancreatic cancer. As expected, higher BMI was linked with increased risk of dying of pancreatic cancer, but this increase in risk was largest for BMI assessed at earlier ages.
“Our results strongly suggest that to stop and eventually reverse recent increases in pancreatic cancer rates, we will need to do better in preventing excess weight gain in children and younger adults, an achievement which would help prevent many other diseases as well,” said study’s lead author, Eric J. Jacobs, PhD, senior scientific director of Epidemiology Research at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.
Having a history of certain health conditions – such as diabetes, long-term inflammation of the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis), a stomach ulcer and Helicobacter pylori infection (a stomach infection) may also increase your risk.
“Certain genes also increase your chances of getting pancreatitis, which in turn increases your risk of developing cancer of the pancreas,” explained the NHS.
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