Even the smallest organs in your body can make a huge difference in your health. The body is a series of interconnected organs, joints, bones, and systems that all have to work hand in hand in order to keep you functioning as you should. This month, at Needham Gastroenterology Associates, we’re discussing a 6-inch long organ in your body, the pancreas, which can develop an aggressive form of cancer. November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month and it’s our goal to educate our patients on its prevalence, how it’s detected, how it’s treated, and how you can learn more about it. Even though the pancreas is a small organ, it serves a big purpose of regulating insulin, glucose, and sugar levels in the body, as well as breaking down food once it leaves your stomach.

How Many People Are Affected By Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancer diagnoses in the United States, affecting just over 55,000 patients with a new diagnosis each year, with men being at a slightly higher risk than women. Risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer include being overweight or obese, smoking, and exposure to chemicals that may come along with certain jobs like dry cleaning and metal working. In addition, there are some risk factors which are out of our control, like age, race, and family history. African Americans are at a slightly higher risk of the disease, as are men and women over age 45. The average age for diagnosis is at 71.

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose in early stages due to fairly non-distinct symptoms, which may be assumed to be related to other, less serious medical issues. Jaundice is a common sign of pancreatic cancer, which presents itself with yellowing of the eyes and skin, dark urine, and itchy skin. The disease is commonly accompanied by a lack of appetite and unexplained weight loss, belly pain, nausea and vomiting, blood clots, gallbladder and liver enlargement, and diabetes.

What Are The Different Types Of Pancreatic Cancer?

There are two different types of cancer of the pancreas, exocrine and endocrine. If you are diagnosed with cancer, it’s most likely to be of the exocrine variety, which makes up nearly 95% of all cases of pancreatic cancers. The most typical form, pancreatic adenocarcinoma, develops in the ducts of the pancreas.

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer can be challenging for many doctors. The pancreas is found deep within your body, so a typical physical exam isn’t likely to show abnormalities like swelling or tumors. Due to this, it often isn’t even detected until late-stages, which explains why the mortality rate of the disease is so high. New research is constantly being done in order to determine if there is a way to diagnose pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage, which could lead to changes in treatment options. In certain cases, for instance, where you can track a family history of the disease, there are advanced screening options and imaging tests which can help detect pancreatic cancer.

What Can I Do? 

One of the best things you can do when it comes to cancer prevention and detection, whether it is pancreatic cancer or any other form of the disease, is to do your best to stay healthy and understand your own body. Keep up a regular exercise routine, maintain a healthy weight, avoid tobacco and excessive alcohol use, and understand your family history. In addition to these measures, you should make an appointment with the team at Needham Gastroenterology Associates any time you notice a change in your dietary or GI health. By paying proper attention to your body you can make the difference in an early or late-stage diagnosis, making treatment more available and successful.