Don’t play games with your body

It's World Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day

Know your body. Listen to your body.

Pancreatic cancer is the toughest cancer to diagnose, treat and survive. One in four people won’t survive for a month. Three in four won’t survive for a year. In the UK, 24 people die from pancreatic cancer every day.

On World Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day supporters and pancreatic cancer charities across the world are coming together to put a spotlight on the disease to ensure it gets the recognition it deserves.

What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is a large gland that is part of the digestive system. Pancreatic cancer is caused by the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the pancreas.

The most common type of pancreatic cancer is known as pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. Other, rarer types of pancreatic cancer may be treated differently. We discuss the most common form.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

In the early stages, a tumour in the pancreas doesn't usually cause any symptoms, which can make it difficult to diagnose. The first noticeable symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often:

  • Pain in the back or stomach area, which may come and go at first and is often worse when lying down or after eating
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes). It also may cause your urine to be dark yellow or orange, your faeces to be pale-coloured and to give you itchy skin.

Other possible symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in bowel movements (diarrhoea or constipation)
  • Fever and shivering
  • Indigestion
  • Blood clots.

Of course, it's important to remember that these symptoms can be caused by many different conditions and aren't usually the result of cancer.

However, you should contact your GP if you're concerned, or if these symptoms start suddenly.

You may also develop symptoms of diabetes if you have pancreatic cancer. This is because the tumour can stop the pancreas producing insulin as it normally would.

What causes it?

It's not fully understood what causes pancreatic cancer, but a number of risk factors for developing the condition have been identified. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Age: pancreatic cancer mainly affects people aged 50-80. Around half of all new cases are diagnosed in people aged 75 or over and it's uncommon in people under 40
  • Being very overweight
  • Smoking: one in three cases are associated with using cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco
  • Having a history of certain health conditions, such as diabetes, chronic pancreatitis (long-term inflammation of the pancreas), pancreatic cancer, stomach ulcer and Helicobacter pylori infection (a stomach infection)
  • Heavy drinking: there's evidence that drinking a lot of alcohol may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer and of getting it at a younger age. The risk may be higher still for people who smoke as well as drink
  • Eating red meat may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer, particularly meat cooked at high temperatures. Red meat includes beef, lamb and pork. Processed meat is also a risk - this includes sausages, ham, bacon, salami and burgers
  • Someone in your family has had it: In some one in ten cases, pancreatic cancer is inherited. Certain genes also increase your chances of getting pancreatitis, which in turn increases your risk of developing it.

Diagnosing and treating pancreatic cancer

Your GP will first ask about your general health and carry out a physical examination. They may examine your tummy abdomen for a lump and to see whether your liver is enlarged. They'll also check your skin and eyes for signs of jaundice and may request a urine sample and blood test.

If your GP suspects pancreatic cancer, you'll usually be referred to a specialist at a hospital for further investigation. You may have an ultrasound scan, a CT scan, an MRI scan, a PET scan or PET-CT scan.

Depending on the results of the scan, further tests may be undertaken.

The three main treatments for pancreatic cancer are:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy.

Find out more about pancreatic cancer

Watch the video