When you read the word “pancreas,” quickly say the first thing that comes to your mind.
If you said “cancer,” you’re not alone. Most people think of their pancreas when they hear about pancreatic cancer, the deadliest form of cancer with a 5-year survival rate.
“One of the reasons survival rates are so low is that pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect early,” said Andrew Hendifar, MD, director of pancreatic cancer research at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.
Early detection of non-pancreatic diseases is also difficult, says Ted Epperly, president of the Idaho Family Medicine Residency.
Your pancreas is a long, flat organ located deep in your abdomen that produces enzymes and hormones that help you digest food. Pancreatic symptoms can be irritating, but Epperly and Hendifar say there are several warning signs that should prompt a call to your doctor. Here are 5 of them. (Want to adopt healthier habits? Sign up to get healthy living tips delivered straight to your inbox!)
Your poop looks funny.
If you notice that your stool is light in color and floats, this is a sign of poor nutrient absorption. (Here are 7 things your poop tells you about your health.) “Enzymes your pancreas produces help digest fats in your diet,” Hendifar explains. In addition to breaking down fat, the pancreas helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, E and K, he said.
When pancreatic disease impairs the organ’s ability to properly produce these enzymes, stools appear lighter and less dense. You may also notice that your stool is oily or greasy. “Toilet water will have a film like oil,” Hendifar said. It’s dietary fat that your body hasn’t been able to break down, he explains.
If you notice that your poop looks funny every now and then, it’s not a cause for panic. But let your doctor know if all or most of your bowel movements have these characteristics.
Your insides hurt.
Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of both pancreatic cancer and acute pancreatitis, a deadly inflammation, Hendifar said. But this pain manifests itself in different ways depending on the underlying condition.
If the pain seems to start before it “radiates” to your middle or back, and if it lasts for several weeks, it could be a sign of pancreatic cancer, Epperly says. Also, if you’ve already seen your doctor and he’s prescribed a medicine called a proton pump inhibitor, such as omeprazole (Prilosec) or esomeprazole (Nexium), tell your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve. . Hendifar says doctors often mistake pancreatic cancer pain for reflux or other gastrointestinal problems, many of which proton pump inhibitors can help address.
On the other hand, if the pain comes on suddenly and is severe and concentrated in the middle of the abdomen, it could be associated with acute pancreatitis, Epperly said.
Either way, don’t panic. Hendifar added that many health problems, some serious but minor, can cause stomach aches and pains. Just see a doctor.