Quickly name the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “pancreas”. If you say “cancer,” you are not alone. Most people only think of pancreatic cancer when they hear about this disease, the most deadly type of cancer with a 5-year survival rate. “Part of the reason for this low survival rate is that pancreatic cancer is so difficult to recognize at an early stage,” says Andrew Hendivar, MD, director of pancreatic oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Early detection is also difficult when it comes to non-cancerous pancreatic disease.
Located in the abdomen, the pancreas is a long, flat organ that produces enzymes and hormones that aid digestion. While the symptoms of pancreatic problems can be bothersome, Drs. Eberle and Hendivar say there are several warning signs that you should see your doctor. Here are five of them.
- Your stool has a strange appearance:
If you notice that your stool is light-colored and watery, it’s a sign of poor nutrient absorption. “Enzymes produced by the pancreas help digest the fats in your diet,” Hendivar explains. In addition to breaking down fat, the pancreas helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, E and K, he adds.
When pancreatic disease prevents the organs from properly producing these enzymes, the result is pale, less voluminous stools. You may also notice that your poop is greasy or oily. “There will be an oily film on the toilet water,” Hendevar says. He explains that this is dietary fat that your body has not been able to break down.
If you occasionally notice that your poop looks strange, don’t be alarmed. But if all or almost all of your stools show these signs, talk to your doctor.
- You have pain inside:
Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer and acute pancreatitis, a type of life-threatening infection, Dr. Hendivar says. But this pain manifests differently depending on the underlying disease. According to Eberle, if the pain starts in the middle of the abdomen, then spreads to the middle or lower back, and if it persists for several weeks, it may be a sign of pancreatic cancer. Also, if you’ve already seen a doctor and been prescribed a drug called a proton pump inhibitor – such as omeprazole (Prilosec) or esomeprazole (Nexium) – tell your doctor if the symptoms don’t get better. Doctors usually mistake pancreatic cancer for pain from reflux or other digestive problems that proton pump inhibitors should treat, Hendivar says.
On the other hand, if the pain is sudden, severe and concentrated in the abdomen, it’s acute pancreatitis, Eberle says.
In either case, there’s no need to panic. According to Hendivar, many health problems – some serious, but many more benign – can cause abdominal pain. Just see your doctor.
- Diabetes makes itself known:
The pancreas produces hormones that help control the body’s production of insulin as well as blood sugar levels. When pancreatic function is impaired, people are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, he added. If your weight is under control and you’re eating a healthy diet, a new diagnosis of diabetes should lead to a more thorough examination of your pancreas.
The same is true for a woman with diabetes who suddenly has difficulty managing her disease. “Sudden changes in diabetes without a clear explanation are what we associate with pancreatic cancer,” he adds.
- You feel nauseous after eating a hamburger:
Hendivar says nausea and vomiting are symptoms to watch for, especially if you eat fatty foods. Again, because the pancreas produces enzymes that help the digestive system break down fats, diseases that impair the pancreas usually impair the body’s ability to digest fats, leading to nausea. “Hamburgers often cause nausea, as do avocados and nuts, which are all high in fat,” he explains. “Pizza is another really difficult method for patients with impaired pancreas.” Eberle says pancreatitis is more likely to cause sudden vomiting and nausea than pancreatic cancer.
- You experience weight loss:
It’s tempting to take credit for a new diet. But if you are losing weight – and especially if you are experiencing the diffuse pain described above – the weight loss may be due to digestive problems related to cancer or pancreatic disease.