The pancreas is one of those little organs that goes about its business, and you pay it no mind … that is, until there’s a problem. Like so many things, we tend to wait until something goes really wrong before we address an issue. Unfortunately with pancreatic cancer, late might be too late. Learning what to look for and what to do when symptoms arise can be the key to catching the disease early.
The best case scenario when it comes to any type of cancer, and especially pancreatic cancer, is prevention, followed by early detection. You can start on the path toward prevention by knowing your risk factors and taking steps to improve the ones you can change and monitor the ones you cannot. Let’s start with the ones you can change—tobacco use, exercise, and weight. Research has found that about twenty-thirty percent of pancreatic cancer cases can be attributed to smoking. Exercise is another key prevention tactic—all other things equal, a person who exercises is half as likely to get pancreatic cancer than someone who lives a sedentary lifestyle. Likewise, maintaining a healthy weight has been shown to reduce cancer risk in general, so combining that important exercise with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat and processed foods is a good strategy for decreasing your pancreatic cancer risk and moving toward prevention.
Unfortunately, as with any health problem, there are factors outside of your control. While it can feel unhelpful to focus attention on things we can’t change, the truth is that having an accurate picture of all of our risks can help us make wise decisions about how we treat our bodies and how quickly we notice warning signs. These factors can also help you and your doctor make appropriate action plans to monitor potential problems more closely. Some of these uncontrollable risks include age, genetics, and, to some degree, ethnicity.
In general, the older you get, the greater your risk for pancreatic cancer. The average age of diagnosis is around 70 years old, but for healthy nonsmokers, that risky age can increase by almost ten years. Genetics play a big role in getting pancreatic cancer. If you have one relative who has had pancreatic cancer, your risk is higher and increases exponentially the more relatives you have with the disease. Knowing your family history is an important point of discussion for you and your doctor since the hereditary link is so strong. It used to be true that men were more likely to get pancreatic cancer than women, but that gap has closed so much in recent years that the difference is pretty insignificant. On the other hand, in the U.S., the disease does appear to occur more in African Americans than in caucasians.
Be On Time
If you can’t prevent pancreatic cancer completely, the next best thing is to catch it early. Early detection is key in treating pancreatic cancer and preventing it from spreading to the organs around it. Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month is all about learning to spot the signs early and begin treatment immediately. One of the first signs typically noticed with pancreatic cancer is jaundice, which causes a yellow or greenish hue on the skin and whites of the eyes. It may also cause bodily fluids to be yellow and stool to be pale. Jaundice happens because of buildup of waste material in the blood and usually indicates that the pancreas or liver are having trouble excreting waste through the bile duct. In the case of pancreatic cancer, this can mean that a tumor is blocking the opening to the liver or that the cancer has spread to the liver. Other symptoms include vomiting and nausea (especially when combined with abdominal pain), unexplained weight loss, frequent urination or difficulty urinating, and blood clots. Several of these symptoms can also indicate other conditions, making pancreatic cancer more difficult to diagnose. However, better safe than sorry on this one! Visiting a gastroenterologist will provide accurate testing, diagnosis, and peace of mind because it’s not cancer or because you succeeded in catching it early.
If You’re Late
Healthy lifestyle doesn’t prevent every case of cancer just like having risk factors doesn’t mean you will get cancer. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself needing treatment of some kind for pancreatic cancer. If that happens, rest assured that your gastroenterologist is the most qualified to diagnose and address any pancreatic issues or subsequent problems that arise because of the cancer. Gastroenterologists have a range of tests to accurately pinpoint the source and location of the cancer as well as to determine the correct treatment to apply. Your doctor may use any combination of surgery to remove or destroy tumors, radiation, and chemotherapy. Pain management is usually necessary and is an important part of the treatment plan. Now that you know the symptoms to watch out for, you are more likely to meet with a doctor sooner, which greatly improves your treatment effectiveness since the earlier treatment begins, the less likely it is to spread to other organs.
Knowing what to look for and what to do if symptoms arise can be a great comfort, but maybe this information has created more questions. If that’s you, and you want to discuss your concerns, or if you have recognized some risk factors in your own life, Associates in Digestive Health can help. Make an appointment with us today.