When Alex Trebek revealed his diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer in March, he said he’d fight it, ending with a joke: “Truth told, I have to! Because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years.”
His good humor aside, the news shocked his fans—and many Americans. The “low survival-rate statistics for this disease” meant “the prognosis for this is not very encouraging.” Would everyone’s favorite game show host die of pancreatic cancer? Might you?
Your pancreas, tucked away behind your stomach, is an inconspicuous organ tirelessly producing essential enzymes and hormones your body needs for digestion. However, when something goes wrong with it, your pancreas has a tendency to whisper, not shout. This makes pinpointing problems particularly challenging, especially when it comes to pancreatic cancer, the deadliest form of this disease.
If caught early, pancreatic cancer is treatable. But the vast majority of cases aren’t diagnosed until it’s too late—in large part because no reliable early screening test exists. Read on to discover the six most crucial SOS pancreas alert signals. Trebek’s tumors are shrinking, thank goodness. Catch yours before they grow.
You Experience Nausea and Vomiting, Especially After Eating Fatty Foods
Fatty foods can do a number on you, and others—for proof, just visit a men’s room on a Monday morning (or don’t). However, if you are repeatedly experiencing nausea and vomiting, especially after eating fatty foods like fries, pizza, or even avocados, it may be a sign that something is wrong with your pancreas. Why? Symptoms can arise when pressure from a pancreatic cyst or tumor is growing on the stomach or small intestine, causing a block of the digestive tract. As the growth becomes bigger, it can actually cause a partial block by entwining itself around the far end of the stomach.
As well, your pancreas produces digestive enzymes that help your system break down fat, among other things. Diseases that affect the pancreas tend to mess with your body’s fat-digesting capabilities, leading to nausea and possible vomiting. A sudden onset of these symptoms, though, is more likely to indicate pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas.
Recommendation: There are myriad reasons for an upset stomach, so don’t quickly jump to conclusions. If nausea or vomiting after eating persists, make sure to see a doctor so you can find out what’s going on.
Your Skin and Eyes Look Yellow
Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes that occurs when bilirubin, a component of bile, builds up in the blood. Bilirubin is made by the liver as a breakdown product of old red blood cells and is usually eliminated from your body when your gallbladder releases bile.
Here’s how your pancreas is involved: Bile travels from your gallbladder through the common bile duct and passes through the pancreas. But if the bile ducts become blocked—for whatever reason—jaundice may result. Jaundice can be a sign of pancreatic cancer if a tumor is growing in the head of the pancreas, obstructing the bile duct and flow of bile.
Recommendation: They may be galling, but gallstones are the more likely cause for jaundice in adults than pancreatic cancer. Lower your risk of gallstones by following a healthy eating plan and regularly exercising. Here’s some inspiration to get you excited about eating healthy food: 7 Must-Buy Foods on a Healthy Grocery List, According to a Dietitian.
Your Poop. It’s Doing Funny Things, like Floating
Oily? Greasy? Gray? Floating? If your poop is playing these tricks on you, it may be a sign of pancreatic disease. It can wreak havoc on your ability to produce the digestive enzymes that break down fats properly. The result can be funky feces. See an oily film in your toilet water after going No. 2—or find your feces floating? That’s due to dietary fat that’s not getting broken down by your body. And as for the pale poop phenomenon: Bilirubin gives your poop its brown color, but when your bile ducts are blocked, that color goes to monochromatic hues of gray or clay.
Recommendation: Poop that’s a bit “special” every now and then is nothing to freak out about. But if most of your bowel movements start to have these characteristics, call your doctor and get yourself checked out.
You Suddenly Get Diabetes
If you eat a healthy diet, your weight is under control, but you become diagnosed with diabetes, it might warrant a closer look at your pancreas. This is true especially if you’re over 50 and have a low BMI (body mass index), with no family history of diabetes. Your pancreas produces insulin, which regulates your body’s blood sugar. When your pancreas is under attack by a tumor or disease, systems begin to fail, and it can be common for people to suddenly develop type 2 diabetes.
The same goes if you’ve had well-controlled diabetes for a while and suddenly find it difficult to manage the disease. Rapid shifts in diabetes status without a clear-cut rationale may be associated with pancreatic cancer.
Recommendation: If you have diabetes but experience a sudden change in your blood sugar levels, be sure to let your doctor know so you can rule out a more serious problem with your pancreas.
You’ve Just Unexpectedly Lost Weight
You might be rocking the keto diet, but if you’re dropping weight (too) rapidly, it could be due to digestive issues associated with pancreatic cancer or other pancreatic disorders. The weight loss may be caused by incomplete digestion either due to the cancer or as a result of the cancer itself (like when a tumor creates a stomach blockage). Unintended weight loss is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer.
Recommendation: Many other health conditions can also explain sudden weight loss, like thyroid issues. If you have just unexpectedly lost weight, you should see a doctor.
You Experience Abdominal Pain
Pain in your abdomen or back is a common warning sign of pancreatic cancer and acute pancreatitis, but the pain manifests differently for each. Radiating pain that extends toward the mid or lower back, which goes on for weeks, could be a sign of pancreatic cancer. The American Cancer Society shares that if a tumor that starts in the body or tail of the pancreas grows to be rather large, it can press on neighboring organs, causing pain. Sometimes, pancreatic cancer can spread to the nerves that surround the pancreas, which can result in back pain.
If the pain, however, comes on suddenly, feels intense, and is mostly in the middle of your abdomen, it’s more likely to be acute pancreatitis.
Recommendation: Any number of health issues can be the cause of your stomach aches or pain. And more likely than not, your upset stomach is due to a more mundane, garden-variety cause. If abdominal pain persists, however, please see your doctor.
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