Quickly say the first thing that comes to your mind when you read the word “pancreas”. If you said “cancer,” you’re not alone. When most people hear about pancreatic cancer, they think only of the pancreas—the deadliest type of cancer with a 5-year survival rate. “Part of the reason survival rates are so low is because pancreatic cancer is so difficult to detect early,” says Andrew Handivar, MD, director of pancreatic oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Early diagnosis of non-cancerous pancreatic problems is also challenging.
Deep in the abdomen, the pancreas is a long, smooth organ that produces enzymes and hormones that help digest food. While symptoms of pancreatic problems can be alarming, both Epperly and Hendifar say there are a few warning signs you should call your doctor. Here are 5 of them.
- Your poop looks funny.
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If you notice that your stool is light in color and floats, this is a sign of poor absorption of nutrients. “Enzymes produced by the pancreas help you digest the fats in your diet,” Handivar explains. In addition to breaking down fat, the pancreas helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, and K, he says.
When pancreatic disease impairs your organs’ ability to properly produce enzymes, the result is pale, bulkier stools. You may also notice that your stool is oily or greasy. “Toilet water will have an oil-like layer,” Handivar says. These are dietary fats that your body can’t break down, he explains.
Don’t panic if you notice that your poop seems to smell bad every now and then. But if all or most of your bowel movements have these characteristics, tell your doctor.
- Your insides hurt.
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Handivar says: Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer and acute pancreatitis, which is a potentially fatal inflammation. But this pain shows itself in different ways depending on the underlying conditions. If the pain seems to start in the midsection before “spreading” to your middle or lower back—and if it lasts for weeks—it could be a sign of pancreatic cancer, Eberly says. Also, if you’ve already been to your doctor and he or she has prescribed a type of medicine called a proton pump inhibitor — such as omeprazole (Prilosec) or esomeprazole (Nexium) — tell your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve. Doctors often mistake it for pancreatic cancer — pain from reflux or other digestive problems that PPIs are supposed to help, Handivar says.
On the other hand, if the pain comes on suddenly and is severe and centered in the middle of the abdomen, it’s the type associated with acute pancreatitis, Eberly says.
In any case, fear not, adds Handifar: Many health problems — some serious, but very mild — can cause stomach aches. Just go to the doctor
- Diabetes rears its head.
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The pancreas produces hormones that help control insulin production in the body as well as blood sugar levels. When the pancreas is compromised, it’s more common for people with type 2 diabetes, Handiver says.
The same applies to a diabetic patient who suddenly finds it difficult to manage their disease. “Those sudden changes in diabetes status with no clear explanation are the things we see associated with pancreatic cancer,” he says.
- You feel nauseous after eating a hamburger.
Handivar says nausea and vomiting are symptoms to watch out for, especially if you eat fatty foods. Again, since the pancreas produces enzymes that help the digestive system break down fats, diseases that have problems with the pancreas impair the body’s ability to digest fats, leading to nausea. become “Hamburgers are often nausea-inducing, as are avocados and nuts, which are all high in fat,” she says. Pizza is another challenging way for patients with damaged pancreas. According to Eberly, pancreatitis is more likely to cause sudden vomiting and nausea than pancreatic cancer.
- You are losing weight.
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It’s tempting to take credit for your new diet. But if you’re losing weight—and especially if you’re experiencing the widespread pain described above—that weight loss could be due to digestive issues related to cancer or pancreatic disease, Handivar says. Thyroid problems and some other health conditions can also explain rapid weight loss. Anyway, you must see one
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