Pancreatic cancer cases make up around 3% of cancers in the United States, making it fairly rare.
That doesn’t mean symptoms should be overlooked. There is usually no outward sign of the tumor, like a lump, but there are things to watch out for. This is especially important because there is no screening exam for pancreatic cancer.
The pancreas is a gland, about 6 inches long, that sits behind the stomach. It has two main functions: It helps digest food and regulate blood sugar. Clues that there are problems with the pancreas often show up as changes in weight or blood sugar levels.
“The average person should not worry that they will get pancreatic cancer,” says Matthew Katz, M.D., associate professor in the department of Surgical Oncology. “But be aware of your body.”
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer
Katz says any combination of the following symptoms should be taken seriously, especially in people older than 65. The earlier cancer is found, the more likely it can be treated successfully.
Jaundice: This is yellowing of the eyes and skin. It might be subtle at first but could quickly become very noticeable. “Often people say they didn’t notice but their spouse did,” Katz says. “It’s progressive.”
Unexplained weight loss: Watch for weight loss unrelated to changes in your diet or exercise routine. This is because pancreatic cancer leads to muscle wasting, which is when your muscles become weak or shrink. You may also stop feeling hungry or become uncomfortable while eating. Weight loss of 10 or more pounds that cannot be explained can be a sign of cancer.
Pain: Many patients report stomach pain that radiates to their back. “People get a gnawing pain, classically at night. It can wake you up from sleep,” Katz says.
New onset diabetes: The pancreas regulates glucose levels in the blood, so any problem will affect your blood sugar. New onset diabetes, especially in an older person, can be a clue that something is wrong.
Lethargy and depression: More research is needed to understand this, but Katz says the rate of depression among pancreatic cancer patients is higher than average.
“Patients know their bodies best and if any of these symptoms are persistent and can’t be explained, they should be properly checked out,” Katz says. “Even if that means getting a second or third opinion.”
Reduce your pancreatic cancer risk
You can take steps to reduce your risk for pancreatic cancer.
If you smoke, quit. If you don't smoke, don't start. Smokers have double the risk of pancreatic cancer over non-smokers.
Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk for a host of cancers, including pancreatic cancer. Even if you are a healthy weight or slightly overweight, if you carry extra pounds around your waistline, your risk goes up.
If you have a history of pancreatic or other cancers in your family, consider genetic testing. This could help your medical team find out if you have gene mutations that put you at higher risk.