One of the best ways to promote change and advocate for research when it comes to healthcare and the detection and treatment of common diseases is through participating in awareness months and learning. This month, we’re celebrating Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month at Cary Gastroenterology and invite you to join us.

What Is The Function Of The Pancreas?

Your pancreas is only about 6 inches long, found just below your liver on the right side of the abdomen. Although it’s a small organ, it is responsible for regulating some important functions in your body. One of the most common functions you may be familiar with is that it helps control your insulin, which can result in diabetes if it ceases to function properly. While pancreatitis and other conditions are tied to the pancreas, what we’re here to talk about for Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month is how a healthy pancreas can develop cancer. Just like any other forms of cancer, pancreatic cancer forms when cells within the pancreas grow out of control. The cells found in the pancreas are responsible for helping to digest foods, especially fats, and fall into two different categories, the exocrine cells and endocrine cells. They each form different types of tumors, which is important to understand for treatment purposes. Exocrine cancers are much more common than endocrine, making up around 95% of pancreatic cancers.

How Common Is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer makes up a small percentage of annual cancer diagnoses in the United States, with just over 55,000 people estimated to be diagnosed each year, roughly 3% of all cancers in the U.S. It affects men at a slightly higher rate than women. Pancreatic cancer symptoms can vary greatly between patients, and can also mirror those of significantly less serious illnesses, often resulting in late-stage diagnosis of the disease. One of the signs of pancreatic cancer includes jaundice, which is evident in the yellowing of the eyes and the skin, dark urine, and itchy skin. It can also include back and belly pain, lack of appetite and unexplained weight loss, blood clots, nausea and vomiting, gallbladder and liver enlargement, and diabetes.

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?

One of the reasons that pancreatic cancer has a high mortality rate is that it often isn’t detected until the late stages. Since the pancreas is found deep in the body, it’s nearly impossible for doctors to detect abnormalities through a basic physical exam. By the time patients begin to show physical symptoms, the disease has often spread to other places in the body. It can be a symptom-free disease until this point. In some cases, there are indicators in the blood that can show you’re at risk or in the beginning stages of the disease, although this test isn’t recommended by most providers unless you’re at an increased risk for the disease due to family history. If you are, you should consult with a genetic counselor and oncologist for more information. For those with a family history who are at a higher risk of pancreatic cancer, endoscopic ultrasounds are also available, which may detect the disease in earlier stages.

How Can I Make A Difference? 

The best way to understand pancreatic cancer is through education. It’s crucial to understand how your body works, how your organs are interconnected, and how important proper nutrition, regular medical checkups, maintaining a proper weight and exercise routine, and the importance living a generally healthy lifestyle. Know your body and make sure you report any abnormalities to your doctor for immediate attention. If you’re detecting something isn’t right with your gastrointestinal health, it’s time to visit make an appointment with Cary Gastroenterology regarding your health.