Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms: Recognition of signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer may be pivotal in improving treatment outcomes for patients.
Currently, the high rate of morbidity among patients is mostly due to the late stage at which they receive the diagnosis and begin treatment. The issue of timely diagnosis is much complicated by the fact that when pancreatic cancer symptoms do appear.
They are often not specific enough to point health care providers directly to the need for cancer screening. Symptoms such as stomach pain, weight loss, or itching skin frequently misattributed to other conditions.
Such as diabetes, or dermatological conditions, they are thus delaying appropriate treatment. Adding further complication is the tendency toward seeing specialists who may fail to recognize the significance of clustered symptoms.
The solution to this dilemma lies in encouraging familiarity with individual signs and symptoms of cancer, and awareness of the potential importance of concurrent presentation. The simple act of raising awareness may provide a significant opportunity to hasten treatment and extend the patient’s life.
What is the Pancreas?
The pancreas is a gland organ found in the digestive and endocrine systems of vertebrates. Its function is two-fold; it produces both hormones and digestive enzymes. The pancreas is crucial in the regulation of blood sugar levels as it secretes insulin and glucagon, as well as somatostatin and pancreatic polypeptides.
It also aids the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats through the production of digestive enzymes that pass into the upper intestine.
The pancreas is usually about 6 inches long and shaped much like a pear. It divided into thirds with segments designated as the head, body, and tail. Located in the upper abdomen between the stomach and spine, the pancreas cannot palpate during a physical exam.
Its obscured location and inability to be felt during exams may contribute to what is typically late detection of malignancies.
The specific pancreatic cancer symptoms a patient exhibits can offer clues as to what segment of the pancreas is affected. If a patient presents with jaundice, it may be a sign that the flow of bile from the liver to the intestines has blocked, indicating cancer in the head of the pancreas.
In contrast, tumors in the body or tail of the pancreas are less likely to cause jaundice, but more likely to cause abdominal pain, weight loss, and diarrhea.
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
Jaundice can observe as an unnatural yellow tone in the skin and sclera (whites) of the eyes. As a mass in the pancreas grows, it may obstruct the bile ducts, causing an excessive amount of bilirubin in the blood.
Abdominal pain is, perhaps, the pancreatic cancer symptom most likely to cause a patient to seek care. Pain is usually felt in the upper portion of the abdomen with sensations sometimes radiating into the back. The pain will often worsen within three to four hours of eating, or when lying down.
Unintended Weight Loss
Unintentional weight loss is almost always a sign of distress and warrants a visit to the doctor. When accompanied by abdominal pain, it is one of the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Because this symptom is among the first to present, it is very important to have it addressed by a physician.
Since the pancreas is essential for healthy digestion, a disruption in its healthy function, such as cancer, will frequently cause nausea and vomiting.
Loss of Appetite
Patients with pancreatic cancer often report that they have experienced a loss of appetite, which may be due to the impaired ability of the pancreas to regulate insulin and glucagon. Loss of appetite often attributed to other causes such as stress or indigestion.
As such, it may be ignored unless accompanied by other hallmark symptoms of pancreatic malignancies such as unintentional weight loss, abdominal pain, or vomiting.
As the digestive and thus, detoxification processes related to the pancreas are compromised, some patients experience itchy skin. If a connection between this symptom and other signs, such as abdominal pain, is not made, patients may find themselves referred to a dermatologist.
Sadly, this does more than inconvenience the patient with unproductive treatment; it delays the commencement of effective, life-extending cancer treatment.
As stated earlier, one of the primary roles of the pancreas is to produce insulin. When the pancreas cannot do so, a diagnosis of diabetes is often made as levels of insulin, and glucagon falls out of balance.
While diabetes treatment may alleviate the symptoms, the presence of cancer often missed unless a connection made between its unexpected onset and other symptoms of pancreatic cancer.
Certainly, anyone who is diagnosed with diabetes without having any typical risk factors should express a healthy curiosity as to the exact origin of the disease.
Changes in Bowel Movements and Urination
When malignancies in the pancreas grow large enough to block the bile ducts, noticeable changes in your bodily waste functions may occur. Urine may assume a darker color. Bowel movements may become loose, lose their brown color in favor of a clay-like hue, and develop an atypically strong odor.
You’ve Noticed Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms. What Next?
Pancreatic cancer is very rare. In 2008, only 38,000 cases diagnosed, making it statistically unlikely that you have it. Nonetheless, it is very important that you consult a physician immediately if you recognize any of these symptoms as your own.
Even if you do not have cancer, all of the symptoms discussed can be indicative of serious medical issues, and as such, warrant a professional evaluation.
Is Pancreatic Cancer Screening Available?
Pancreatic cancer screening has not attained the popularity of, say, mammograms, because it is extremely rare. Although it is available, it is typically recommended only for those who may have a family history or related genetic condition that makes them particularly vulnerable.
Research facilities that specialize in pancreatic cancer often have family registries. Should you fall into one of these high-risk categories, these same research facilities may be able to provide you with annual screenings.
Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rate
Pancreatic cancer survival rate statistics refer to the percentage of pancreatic cancer survivors who are still living for a specific amount of time after diagnosis. The following article details survival rates by stage, as the chances of survival decrease in each following stage.
Usually, pancreatic cancer survival rates refer to five years. Thus, survival rates include patients who are alive for at least five years following diagnosis. This can consist of patients still who have pancreatic cancer, as long as they have lived.
Those who survive may be completely cancer-free, or they may still have a few symptoms or even might still be getting treatment.
Here are some of the facts linked with pancreatic cancer.
Patients do not usually find out they have pancreatic cancer early on. Some symptoms include generic ones, such as weight loss, jaundice, indigestion, fatigue, appetite issues, weakness, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and problems with the digestive system.
Often, these are mistaken for other diseases. Many tests can help diagnose pancreatic cancer even early in its development. These tests include CT scan, ultrasound, biopsy, and abdominal MRI. Once cancer identified, patients face treatment options, including radiotherapy, chemotherapy, medication, nutritional therapy, and surgery.
As stated before, though, patients usually do not detect pancreatic cancer early. Also, because of the pancreas’ location, it is a severe type of cancer to treat. In many cases, the diagnoses occur near the end stages of pancreatic cancer, meaning the treatment may not be effective, and the patient may die.
Life expectancy after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis depends on the speediness of the diagnosis. Those who diagnosed in an earlier stage live much longer on average, as shown by the statistics below.
Stages of Pancreatic Cancer, Survival Rates
Stage One Pancreatic Cancer
A small tumor occupies a small portion of the pancreas during stage one. Those diagnosed in this stage of pancreatic cancer have a high survival rate because surgery to remove the cancer is an option.
Patients in this stage have a good chance of surviving the next five years and more. Generally, though, doctors do not find pancreatic cancer in this first stage. If they do, and if they can perform surgery.
The pancreatic cancer survival rate increases from about 10% to 20%. After surgery, approximately 20% of patients have a chance to live five years or more.
Stage Two Pancreatic Cancer
In stage two, pancreatic cancer is still treatable. Although the tumor is more significant than in stage one, it remains solely inside the pancreas. In some cases, it may have spread to lymph nodes surrounding the pancreas.
Surgery to remove the lymph nodes, and the tumor is still an option in stage two, or the patient may undergo cancer medications. However, only 20% of people, on average, survive longer than one year following the diagnosis.
According to the American Cancer Society, less than 5% of those diagnosed will survive for five years or more. The survival chances from stage one to stage two diagnosis lessen considerably.
Stage Three Pancreatic Cancer
In this stage, cancer has spread into the blood vessels, in addition to the surrounding lymph nodes. This cancer referred to as locally advanced cancer. A surgeon can still remove the lymph nodes and the tumor, but cannot entirely rid the body of cancer.
A doctor may want to try surgery in addition to other cancer treatments, but it is nearly impossible at this stage to entirely remove cancer. This decreases the survival chances for a person diagnosed with stage three to even less than 5%.
Stage Four Pancreatic Cancer
Patients reach stage four, pancreatic cancer quickly. Cancer enters the bloodstream to spread into the rest of the body, as well as into the bones. The cancer is not treatable at this stage, but the doctor will give the patient pain medicine and treatment to make them comfortable.
The pancreatic cancer survival rate in stage four is very low. From the diagnosis, a patient may only survive a couple of days. Median survival time ranges from three to six months.
Overall, pancreatic cancer has a very low survival rate. Patients average one year of survival from diagnoses because the cancer is not easily found and spreads quickly in the body. Remember, though, that survival rates describe groups of people. They are not a predictor of an individual patient’s survival chances.
No two patients are identical in their bodies or their disease, and treatment responses can be very different among patients. Working on an effective cure, though, is very important because this disease is so difficult to catch, and pancreatic cancer survival rate is so low.
Pancreatic Cancer Signs and Tests
Doctors will perform a series of tests and scans to determine the presence of cancer. Among other tests, doctors will perform a CT scan of the abdomen, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) that examines the contents of the abdomen, endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) or endoscopic ultrasound.
The most definitive test, however, for this cancer is the endoscopic needle biopsy. This test has an accuracy rate of 99.9% in diagnosing cancer, even in the early stages.
Pancreatic Cancer Treatment
The stage of the disease limits treatment. Because this cancer often does not exhibit any symptoms until it is in its advanced stage, surgery is not effective in most cases.
When tumors are in their early stages, doctors can perform surgery to remove the cancerous tumors and stop cancer in its tracks. The standard surgery for pancreatic cancer is commonly called the Whipple procedure.
The Whipple procedure removes the head of the pancreas as well as the duodenum, creating a bypass for food to pass through. It also serves to help the body process and rid the body of bile.
For tumors that cannot remove by this procedure, either due to the advanced stage of the disease or the age of the patient, chemotherapy recommended.
When the pancreatic tumors have metastasized or spread to other organs such as the liver, kidneys or intestines, chemotherapy is the preferred method of treatment. In some cases, tumors cannot remove, but doctors can relieve blockages that prevent the transportation of bile.
This is done by placing a tiny metal tube called a stent to open the passageway and bypass the obstruction.
For patients in which curative treatment is not suitable, doctors prescribe palliative chemotherapy. This form of chemotherapy can use to bring comfort to the patient, improve the quality of life, and prolong the survival of the patient.
The average extension of survival for patients receiving chemotherapy is about 4-5 weeks.
Treatment programs for people with pancreatic cancer often include support groups, hospice care, and palliative care. One of the largest concerns for newly-diagnosed cancer patients is pain. Pain can be a very crippling situation to deal with.
Cancer of the pancreas usually causes pain in the upper abdomen, which spreads to other parts of the body. Untreated pain can lead to disillusionment, loss of hope, loss of the will to fight the disease, and depression.
Many pain remedies can treat mild, moderate, and even severe pain and patients need not suffer needlessly. Keeping open communication with the team is the first step in preventing and dealing with severe pain associated with cancer.
The majority of pain complaints can treat with oral medications. In moderate to severe pain, intravenous medications may prescribe. Patients suffering from cancer are given around the clock pain options, as the main focus is on freedom from the discomfort of the disease.