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Pancreatic cancer: Causes, symptoms, and risk factors

IANS Nov 29, 2023

Understanding the causes, symptoms, and risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer is crucial for early detection and improved outcomes in the fight against this deadly disease.

The pancreas, a small organ situated deep within the abdomen, often goes unnoticed until it becomes a source of health concern. Responsible for producing digestive enzymes and regulating blood sugar, the pancreas plays a pivotal role in maintaining overall health. When malignant cells take root in this organ, this causes pancreatic cancer.

Causes of pancreatic cancer

The exact causes of pancreatic cancer remain a subject of ongoing research, but several risk factors have been identified:

Age: Pancreatic cancer is more common in older individuals, with the majority of cases diagnosed in people over the age of 45. The risk increases significantly after the age of 65.

Tobacco Use: Smoking is one of the most significant risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Smokers are two to three times more likely to develop the disease than non-smokers.

Family History: A family history of pancreatic cancer or certain genetic syndromes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, can increase the risk of developing the disease.

Chronic Pancreatitis: Individuals with chronic inflammation of the pancreas have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer over time.

Obesity: Obesity has been linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, possibly due to the associated chronic inflammation and metabolic changes.

Diabetes: New-onset diabetes or long-standing, poorly controlled diabetes may be associated with an elevated risk of pancreatic cancer.

Common symptoms

Pancreatic cancer is notorious for its subtle onset and late diagnosis, making it one of the deadliest forms of cancer. Symptoms can be vague and non-specific, leading to delayed diagnosis. Common symptoms include:

Jaundice: Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes is often an early sign of pancreatic cancer. It occurs when the tumour obstructs the bile duct, preventing the flow of bile.

Abdominal Pain: Dull, aching pain in the upper abdomen or back may be an indicator of pancreatic cancer. This pain can become more severe as the disease progresses.

Unexplained Weight Loss: Sudden and unexplained weight loss is a red flag for many health conditions, including pancreatic cancer.

Appetite Loss: A loss of appetite and feeling full quickly after eating small amounts of food can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer.

Changes in Stool: Light-colored, greasy, or foul-smelling stools may indicate a problem with the pancreas, affecting the digestion of fats.

Early detection and diagnosis

Early detection is crucial in the fight against pancreatic cancer, but it is often diagnosed in its advanced stages due to the lack of early, specific symptoms. Diagnostic tools for pancreatic cancer include imaging tests like CT scans, MRIs, and endoscopic ultrasounds. Additionally, blood tests for tumour markers can help in the diagnosis.

Prevention and awareness

While not all risk factors can be eliminated, there are steps individuals can take to reduce their risk of pancreatic cancer:

Quit Smoking: If you smoke, quitting is one of the most effective ways to lower your risk.

Maintain a Healthy Weight: Adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet and regular exercise can help reduce the risk of many cancers, including pancreatic cancer.

Manage Diabetes: If you have diabetes, work with your healthcare provider to manage it effectively.

Genetic Counselling: Individuals with a family history of pancreatic cancer or genetic predisposition may benefit from genetic counselling and testing.

Understanding the causes, symptoms, and risk factors associated with this disease is crucial for timely diagnosis and improved outcomes. Anyone experiencing persistent symptoms or falling into the high-risk category should seek medical evaluation and guidance to ensure the best chances of early detection and successful treatment. As research into pancreatic cancer continues, there is hope for better diagnostics and treatments in the future.

(Dr. Nandish Jeevangi, Senior Consultant Medical Oncology, HCG Kalaburagi)

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