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Pancreatic Cancer: Warning Signs You Should Never Ignore

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By Gary Greenberg   |   Friday, 05 May 2017 12:57 PM

What did Apple founder Steve Jobs, actor Patrick Swayze, astronaut Sally Ride, opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, and anthropologist Margaret Mead have in common?

They all died from pancreatic cancer — one of the most deadly forms of the dreaded disease. In fact, the five-year survival rate of those afflicted is a scant 7 percent. And as you can tell from the list of its victims, it has little regard for wealth and access to topnotch medical care.

“One reason (for the high mortality rate) is that more than 50 percent of the patients already have metastatic disease by the time the cancer presents itself,” says Dr. Florencia McAllister, an oncologist specializing in pancreatic cancer at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Tex.

“Another reason is that the disease has such an aggressive nature. Even if it’s still localized when found, some cells might have already left the pancreas.”

The pancreas is a banana-shaped organ buried deep in the abdomen. Its main functions are to produce and secrete enzymes for food digestion as well as hormones to regulate blood sugar. The most common and deadly form of pancreatic cancer affects exocrine cells, which make the enzymes. About 5 percent of pancreatic cancer affects endocrine cells, which make the hormones.

The best bet for catching pancreatic cancer in time is by screening high risk patients, says McAllister. That primarily includes people with certain genetic mutations or a strong family history of the disease. Also, new onset diabetes, particularly when associated with pancreatitis, may also prompt screening.

McAllister says that two other major risk factor, tobacco use and obesity, can be reduced by quitting smoking and losing weight.

Sadly, warning signs of pancreatic cancer typically manifest themselves too late. However, early detection may save your life. So be on the lookout for the following symptoms:

Jaundice: A yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes may be due to a pancreatic tumor blocking off a bile duct, causing a build-up of a yellow bile compound called bilirubin. If the tumor originates near the bile duct, it may still be treatable. Dark urine, light-colored stools and itchy skin are other symptoms of bilirubin build-up. However, most cases of jaundice are caused by liver and gallbladder problems.

Abdominal pain: Persistent pain in the belly or back could signal a pancreatic tumor. Often, it is misdiagnosed as heartburn. Of course, this type of pain is common and may be caused by several other less critical conditions, such as indigestion or a lower spine problem.

Sudden weight loss: If you start losing weight for no apparent reason, it may be because the pancreatic cancer is inhibiting the production of digestive enzymes, leading to malabsorption. It’s also common for patients to simply lose their appetite.

Fat anomalies: When a tumor affects cells that produce enzymes to digest fat, it can result in a mottled distribution of fat just under the skin.

Diabetes: If you’ve had a history of relatively normal blood sugar and are suddenly diagnosed with diabetes, it could mean that tumors are destroying the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Nausea: A persistent nausea or vomiting, especially right after eating, could be due to a pancreatic tumor pressing on the end of the stomach.

Blood clots: Pancreatic cancer is one of five types of cancer that often spawn a deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or blood clot, commonly in a leg. Many other things can cause DVTs, but blood clots may be an early sign of cancer.

Although pancreatic cancer remains a death sentence for a vast majority of patients, McAllister says immunotherapy, using a person’s own immune system to kill cancer cells, is one treatment that may soon help to raise the survival rate.

“I’m working in my laboratory every day trying to find novel treatment,” says McAllister, a physician scientist who not only treats patients but also conducts research. “That makes me hopeful that someday we’ll have effective therapy for pancreatic cancer.”

© 2017 NewsmaxHealth. All rights reserved.

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Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of the disease, because it is often diagnosed late. That's why the best way to catch it in time is to be on the lookout for some tell-tale symptoms. Here's a primer.
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