Pancreatic cancer has one of the highest death rates of any cancer.
Your pancreas is one of those organs you probably don’t think about much. Just six inches long and tucked away behind your stomach, its main job is to help you digest your food and control your blood sugar.
Normally it does its work seamlessly, behind the scenes. But when things go wrong, it can affect your entire body.
Just under 2 percent of people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). It’s most common in people over age 60, but has been found in people as young as their twenties and thirties.
And here’s the scariest part of pancreatic cancer: It has one of the highest death rates of any cancer—a mere 8 percent of people are alive five years after diagnosis, according the NCI.
Why? Mostly because it’s so hard to detect in the early, treatable stages. After all, the pancreas is located so deep inside your body that early tumors can’t be seen or felt and people often ignore, or don’t even notice, pancreatic cancer symptoms until the cancer has already spread to other organs, the American Cancer Society warns.
That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and, if you do experience them, to take them seriously, says Anton Bilchik, M.D., Ph.D., professor of surgery and chief of gastrointestinal research at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
“What I’ve observed is that women tend to wait and see the doctor until their symptoms are very bad, but because pancreatic cancer has such a high death rate, don’t take the risk,” he says. “If you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor; it’s not silly, we’d much rather see you and have it be nothing than miss a cancer.”
Here, the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer that you need to know.
1. YOUR EYES AND SKIN ARE YELLOW
Yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin is never good. It could be a sign of a host of medical problems that can include alcoholism, liver failure, and pancreatic cancer. The reason is that many pancreatic tumors start at the head of the pancreas, which is near your bile duct, Bilchik explains.
Even small tumors can put pressure on and block your bile duct, which is supposed to carry bile from the liver and gallbladder through the pancreas to the small intestine. One of bile’s jobs is to remove bilirubin, a normal waste product of red blood cells, so when it can’t do its job the excess bilirubin causes jaundice and yellow eyes.
Regardless of the cause, this is one symptom you should never ignore.
2. YOU LOOK FOUR MONTHS PREGNANT
Bloating after a big meal is normal, staying that way for days isn’t. As pancreatic tumors grow larger, they can cause your belly to distend, Bilchik says. This is one of the first signs women often notice, but they don’t call their doctor about it because bloating seems like a small thing to worry about.
It’s worth getting checked out, he says. It probably isn’t cancer, but on the off chance it is (and ovarian cancer also lists bloating as an early sign), it’s better to be safe than sorry.