When you think of digestion you probably don’t think about the pancreas, but it sits right behind the stomach and works to provide essential digestive functions. The pancreas, only about 4- 6 inches long, is widely known for producing insulin, an important hormone that regulates blood sugar levels, but it also assists the body in the absorption of nutrients into the small intestine.
Pancreatic cancer increases with age and most people are between 60 to 80 years old when diagnosed. Early pancreatic cancer often does not cause symptoms, however there are five early warning signs that we can all be aware of to better advocate for our health.
- Yellow eyes or skin. The pancreas uses a greenish-brown fluid made in the gallbladder, called bile, to help the small intestine in digestion. If a tumor starts in the head of the pancreas, it can block or press on the bile duct and cause bile to build up. This back-up causes yellow discoloration, called jaundice.
- Belly pain. Pain has been described as distressing, as compared to a sharp cramp or ache. Pain may go away when you lean forward because it and spreads toward the back.
- Change in stool. Pale, floating, smelly stools. Or dark stools. Let your stool be a guide. If a pancreatic tumor prevents digestive fluids from reaching the intestine, the result is an inability to digest fatty foods. Anytime there is a change with digestion then check in with your doctor. It may not be a sign of digestive cancer, but you do need to be aware of your own body function to determine what is or is not “normal.”
- Lack of appetite. Or sudden, unexplained weight loss. A drop in appetite and a tendency to feel full after eating very little is something to be aware of. Again, it may not be alarming but you do need to be aware of your own body function to determine what is or is not “normal.”
- Diabetes, especially if unexpected from regular check-ups. Most diabetes diagnoses are not due to pancreatic cancer; however, research studies show that pancreatic cancer patients have a higher rate of diabetes diagnosis than the general populace. Knowing your family history of pancreatic cancer and having a baseline of regular screening will help your doctor evaluate if additional tests should be done.
Being an advocate for your health starts with healthy behaviors; tobacco use, particularly cigarette smoking, accounts for 20-30% of pancreatic cancer. Knowing risk factors you should avoid (such as smoking) and being aware of what your body is signaling will help you in early detection as well as potential outcome.
Management of cancer requires a multidisciplinary team of healthcare specialists. Winship’s pancreas cancer team includes surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, gastroenterologists, pathologists as well as pain specialists, nutritionists and social workers. For patients with early stage pancreatic cancer, the Whipple surgical procedure is the best option for long-term survival. Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University surgeons perform a large number of Whipple procedures every year; a high volume of these procedures directly translates into the expertise needed to perform the procedure safely. According to published data, mortality rates from Whipple surgery are four times lower at hospitals performing a high volume of the procedure, such as Emory. Some patients may be candidates for laparoscopic or robotic surgery, which may improve both recovery and cosmetic appearance after surgery. Winship at Emory surgeons are leading the world in this area as well. If diagnosed with cancer it’s important to get to Winship, first.
Continue learning about pancreatic with a conversation; all are welcome to attend an online open-forum discussion about pancreatic cancer. We will answer your questions about pancreatic cancer risk factors, symptoms and therapy on Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 at noon.
About Dr. El-Rayes
Bassel El-Raye, MD, is the Director of the GI Oncology Clinical and Translational Research Program, Associate Cancer Research Director for Clinical Research at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University and Professor of Hematology and Oncology at Emory University School of Medicine. Dr. El-Rayes earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and doctoral degree from the American University of Beirut. He then completed his residency in internal medicine and fellowship in hematology and medical oncology at Wayne State University, Detroit. He was on faculty at Wayne State University Karmanos Cancer Institute from 2003-2009. Dr. El-Rayes clinical interests include gastrointestinal malignancies specifically pancreatobiliary and neuroendocrine cancers. He is principle investigator on multiple investigator initiated trials. He has served on the gastrointestinal committee for Southwest Oncology Group (SWOG) and Radiation Oncology Cooperative Group (RTOG). He currently serves on the National Cancer Institute Neuroendocrine Tumor (NET) Task Force. He also serves as Co-chair of Hoosier Oncology Group (HOG) Cancer Research Network – Gastrointestinal Clinical Trials Working Group. Dr. El-Rayes is a Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Clinical Scholar. He has published over 90 peer reviewed articles in elite journals including Journal of Clinical Oncology and Cancer Research.
About Dr. Kooby
David A. Kooby, MD, FACS, specializes in laparoscopic/robotic and open surgical treatment of liver, bile duct, pancreas, stomach, and colon tumors/cancers. He also has expertise with tumors and diseases of the spleen, adrenal glands, and retroperitoneum. He has taught many national courses on laparoscopic resection of the liver, pancreas, and colon, and is frequently invited to speak at national conferences. He received his MD at the State University of New York, Downstate Medical College, Brooklyn, NY, in 1994; completed his surgical residency at Vanderbilt University, where he won medical student and resident teaching awards. He completed both bench research and clinical fellowships at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY. He was recruited by Emory in 2003, and is currently an Associate Professor of Surgery in the Division of Surgical Oncology, Director of Surgical Oncology at Emory/Saint Joseph’s Hospital, and Director of Minimally Invasive GI Surgical Oncology. He serves on several national committees including the task force charged with updating the staging of hepatobiliary malignancies for the American Joint Committee on Cancer’s Cancer Staging Manual, the research and education committee for the American Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary Association, and the Hepatobiliary Working Group for the Society of Surgical Oncology. He is leader in multicenter clinical research and is a national leader in minimally invasive pancreatic surgery.