Quickly, say the first thing that comes to mind when you read the word “pancreas.” If you say “cancer,” you’re not alone. Most people only think of the pancreas when they hear about pancreatic cancer – the deadliest type of cancer with 5-year survival rates. “Part of the reason for the low survival rates is that pancreatic cancer is so difficult to recognize early,” says Andrew Hendivar, MD, director of pancreatic oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Early detection is also tricky when it comes to non-cancerous pancreatic problems.
Located deep in the abdomen, the pancreas is a long, flat organ that produces enzymes and hormones that aid in digestion. While symptoms of pancreatic problems can be bothersome, Eberle and Hendivar say there are some warning signs that warrant calling your doctor. Here are 5 of them.
- Your poo looks funny.
If you notice that your stools are light in color and floaty, this is a sign of poor absorption of nutrients. “The enzymes produced by the pancreas help you digest the fats in your diet,” explains Hendivar. Besides breaking down fats, the pancreas helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, and K, he says.
When pancreatic disease tampers with your organs’ ability to properly manufacture those enzymes, the result is paler, less bulky stools. You may also notice that your poop is greasy or greasy. “The toilet water will have an oil-like film on it,” says Hendevar. He explains that these are dietary fats that your body has failed to break down.
If you notice your poop looking funky now and then, fear not. But if all or most of your bowel movements have these characteristics, tell your doctor.
- Your insides ache.
Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of both pancreatic cancer and acute pancreatitis, a potentially fatal type of infection, says Hendivar. But this pain manifests itself in different ways depending on the underlying condition. Eberl says that if the pain seems to start in your middle before “spreading” to your middle or lower back — and if it lasts for weeks — it could be a sign of pancreatic cancer. Also, if you’ve already seen your doctor and been prescribed a type of medication called a proton pump inhibitor — such as omeprazole (Prilosec) or esomeprazole (Nexium) — tell your doctor if your symptoms do not improve. It’s common for doctors to misunderstand pancreatic cancer — pain from reflux or other digestive issues, which proton pump inhibitors should help resolve, says Hendivar.
On the other hand, if the pain comes on suddenly and is severe and concentrated in the middle of the abdomen, this is the type associated with acute pancreatitis, Eberl says.
Either way, don’t panic. Hendivar says many health problems — some serious, but many mild — can cause stomach aches or pain. Just go to the doctor.
- Diabetes rears its head.
The pancreas produces hormones that help control the body’s production of insulin, as well as blood sugar levels. When the pancreas is compromised, he says, it’s more common for people to develop type 2 diabetes. If your weight is under control and you follow a healthy diet, a new diabetes diagnosis should result in a closer examination of your pancreas.
The same is true for a diabetic woman who suddenly finds it difficult to manage her disease. “Those sudden changes in diabetes status without a clear explanation, those are the things that we see associated with pancreatic cancer,” he says.
- You feel nauseous after eating a burger.
Hendivar says nausea and vomiting are symptoms to watch out for — especially if you eat fatty foods. Again, because the pancreas produces enzymes that help the digestive system break down fats, diseases that spoil the pancreas tend to mess with the body’s ability to digest fats, leading to nausea. “Hamburgers are often a trigger for nausea, as are avocados and nuts, all of which are high in fat,” he says. “Pizza is another really challenging method for patients with compromised pancreas.” Eberl says pancreatitis is more likely to cause sudden vomiting and nausea than pancreatic cancer.
- You are experiencing weight loss.
It’s tempting to take credit for your new diet. But if you’re losing weight — and especially if you experience the diffuse pain described above — that weight loss may be due to digestive issues related to pancreatic cancer or disease, says Hendevar. Thyroid problems and some other health conditions can also explain rapid weight loss. Anyway, you need to see someone.