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Pancreatic cancer

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DIGESTIVE SYSTEM
Cancer

From MayoClinic.com

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas secretes enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help regulate the metabolism of carbohydrates.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most serious of all cancers. It develops when malignant cells form in the tissues of your pancreas - a large organ that lies horizontally behind the lower part of your stomach.

Although pancreatic cancer it's the fourth leading cause of all cancer deaths. That's because pancreatic cancer spreads rapidly and is seldom detected in its early stages. Symptoms such as yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice), abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss may not appear until the disease is quite advanced. By that time, the cancer is likely to have spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body and surgical removal is no longer possible.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don't occur until the disease is advanced. When symptoms do appear, they may include:

  • Upper abdominal pain that may radiate to your middle or upper back. About three-fourths of people with advanced pancreatic cancer experience abdominal pain when a tumor presses on surrounding organs and nerves. Pain may be constant or intermittent and is often worse after eating or when lying down. Because many conditions other than cancer can cause abdominal pain, it's important to discuss your symptoms carefully with your doctor.

  • Loss of appetite and significant weight loss. Unintended weight loss is common in pancreatic cancer. Weight loss occurs in most types of cancer because malignant cells deprive healthy cells of nutrients. But the problem is compounded in pancreatic cancer, which often affects your ability to digest and absorb what you eat.

  • Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice). Half of all people with pancreatic cancer develop jaundice, which occurs when bilirubin, a breakdown product of worn-out blood cells, accumulates in your blood. Normally, bilirubin is eliminated in bile, a fluid produced in your liver. But if a pancreatic tumor blocks the flow of bile, excess pigment from bilirubin may turn your skin and the whites of your eyes yellow. In addition, your urine may be dark brown and your stools white or clay-colored. Although jaundice is a common sign of pancreatic cancer, it's more likely to result from other conditions, such as gallstones or hepatitis.

  • Itching. In the later stages of pancreatic cancer, you may develop severe itching when high levels of bile acids, another component of bile, accumulate in your skin.

  • Nausea and vomiting. In advanced cases of pancreatic cancer, the tumor may block a portion of your digestive tract, usually the upper portion of your small intestine (duodenum), causing nausea and vomiting.

  • Digestive problems. When cancer prevents pancreatic enzymes from being released into your intestine, you're likely to have a hard time digesting foods — especially those high in fat. Eventually, this may lead to weight loss — as much as 25 pounds or more — and malnutrition.

  • Depression. Although most depression is not the result of pancreatic cancer, severe depression sometimes may be the first symptom of this disease.

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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