Pancreatic Cancer: What Are The Symptoms And How Can You Prevent It?

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Pancreatic Cancer is one the deadliest cancers because it usually remains undetected until it reaches an advanced stage, at which point it is often too late to cure.

It is a type of cancer that affects around 8,000 people in Britain a year - two of its most famous faces are Steve Jobs and Patrick Swayze, both of whom died from the disease. Recently, The Guardian's beloved columnist Simon Hoggart died from the cancer.

However most people aren't entirely sure what their pancreas even does, let alone be on the lookout for symptoms.

stomach pain

Dr Paul Zollinger-Read, HuffPost UK blogger and chief medical officer for Bupa, explains: "Your pancreas is a part of your digestive system that produces digestive juices. Pancreatic cancer is caused by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in your pancreas. It’s the 10th most common cancer in the UK, accounting for around 3% of all new cancer. It’s very rare that people under the age of 40 will develop pancreatic cancer – most people who are diagnosed with it are over 65."

The experts acknowledge that it is really tricky cancer to diagnose.

Nick Maisey, consultant oncologist at London Bridge Hospital says: "It is very common that patients have incurable ‘metastatic’ disease (ie secondaries) already by the time the diagnosis is established, because the symptoms can often be very vague, eg weight loss, loss of appetite, mild abdominal pain. Approximately 80 to 90% of new cases have inoperable disease.

"Sadly the life-expectancy even with chemotherapy is less than a year, although recent clinical trials have shown some marginal improvements in prognosis with newer drugs. If the cancer is diagnosed at an early enough stage to be deemed ‘operable’ the majority of patients will still relapse, despite having gone through surgery and often chemotherapy as well. On average the chance of long-term cure following surgery is around 25 to 30%."

At the crux of it all are those vague symptoms that make it so hard to detect. What, if any, are the signs you should be looking out for? Dr Maisey says that pale coloured stools or dark urine can be a sign.

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"The most common is pain around your upper abdomen," adds Dr Zollinger-Read, "which may spread to your back. Jaundice is also a common symptom. Other symptoms include weight loss, feeling sick or vomiting and extreme tiredness. See you doctor if you have any of these symptoms. More than likely, it’ll be something far less serious than pancreatic cancer, but it’s always best to get checked out."

More research needs to be done to draw conclusions about how your lifestyle can affect the health of your pancreas - at present there is no solid evidence. Dr Maisey says that some believe in a link between 'higher risk diets' - so those that contain a lot of sugar and processed meats such as sausages and bacon - but there isn't proof.

However, he says, if you are smoking, stub it out. "Smoking however is a much higher risk factor and it is estimated that approximately 1 in 3 cases of pancreatic cancer are linked to smoking."

pancreatic cancer

Although both doctors agree that it's not as simple as saying 'Eat x,y and z and you'll ward off pancreatic cancer', The Food Doctor nutritionist Alice Mackintosh says there are foods you can eat to support your pancreas regardless.

"The pancreas is an incredibly important organ and is responsible for a great many roles in the body. It’s primary role is to secrete insulin, a crucially important hormone that controls blood sugar levels and in so doing regulates energy levels and a whole host of other tightly controlled reactions in the body. Insulin is secreted in response to a rise in blood sugar and whilst the pancreas is equipped to deal with this, overwhelming it with high levels of glucose continually can have negative effects on its function.

"It is vital to eat foods that don’t cause blood sugar to skyrocket, so aim to eat along the lines of low glycaemic index diet, with wholegrain complex carbs and protein being combined together. Cutting out sugar, white refined carbs and drinks is also vital."

Perhaps the pancreas just doesn't get as much of the limelight as the other organs, but hopefully awareness months will help to change that. As Alice says, the pancreas plays a huge role in how much energy we have as well as how efficiently our digestive systems run.

It isn't just cancer that we need to be aware of when protecting our pancreas - heavy drinking and gallstones can lead to pancreatitis, where the organ is inflamed.

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She adds as a final thought: "Another fundamental role of the pancreas is to secrete digestive enzymes which break down food in the digestive system. Fail to do this, and you risk not absorbing nutrients properly. Foods containing bromelain can help support protein and nutrient digestion, thus supporting pancreatic function. Go for fresh pineapple or papaya which are rich sources. Bromelain is also highly anti-inflammatory and antioxidant rich, which may help protect against pancreatitis."

For more information and support on dealing with pancreatic cancer, visit Pancreatic Cancer UK or call 020 3535 7099.

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