A person with early-stage pancreatic cancer rarely has symptoms. Pancreatic cancer is also referred to as the “silent disease”, because early detection of symptoms is unusual. In some cases in which the tumor originates in the head of the pancreas and blocks a bile duct, a person may have a yellowing of the skin (jaundice). This symptom allows the doctor to diagnose the disease at an early stage.
When symptoms develop, they depend on where the lesions or tumors are located. If the cancer spreads to areas outside of the pancreas, pain may develop in the upper abdomen and spread to the back. When the cancer cells invade the pancreatic cells that make insulin or other hormones, a person may become dizzy and have chills, muscle spasms, or diarrhea. As the disease progresses, symptoms may mimic those of other diseases, and may go undetected for some time.
Some symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
- Appetite loss
- Involuntary weight loss
- Pain in the upper or middle abdomen
- Yellowing of the skin or jaundice
- Muscle spasms
- Digestive abnormalities and bleeding
- Gallbladder enlargement
- Middle back pain
Islet cell tumors can cause diabetes. Rarely, tumors are present in the islet cells—the part of the pancreas that produces a substance called insulin. Insulin is responsible for breaking down sugars in your body. If this process is blocked by a tumor, insulin decreases, allowing sugar in the blood to accumulate. This might lead to diabetes. On the other hand, if the tumor causes the pancreas to make too much insulin or hormone, you may feel weak or dizzy, and have chills, muscle spasms, and/or loose stools.
Although the cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, it is associated with some risk factors, such as smoking, age, obesity and family history. People who have a history of chronic pancreatitis or diabetes may also have a higher risk. Researchers do not know with certainty if excess alcohol consumption and heavy coffee drinking increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
- Smoking. Cells in the pancreas may be damaged by heavy cigarette smoking. The damaged cells become abnormal or mutated, predisposing people to pancreatic cancer. In fact, smoking is linked to approximately one-third of pancreatic cancer deaths.
- Age. The incidence of pancreatic cancer increases significantly after age 45. In fact, most patients affected by the disease are between 60 and 80 years old when diagnosed.
- Obesity Being obese increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.
- Family member with the disease. Some people are at an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer because they have a family history of the condition. In about 5% to 10% of cases, pancreatic cancer is inherited.
- Gender. Men are 30% more likely than women to get pancreatic cancer.
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