Located in the abdomen, just below the stomach, the pancreas has a dual role as a digestive and endocrine organ. It secretes enzymes into the small intestine to help break down food and produces insulin and other hormones that are secreted into the blood.
Like all cancers, pancreatic cancer begins with the growth of abnormal cells. There are two types of cells in the pancreas. The exocrine cells make pancreatic enzymes that aid digestion and the endocrine cells produce insulin and other hormones. More than 95 percent of pancreatic cancers start in the exocrine cells and are classified as exocrine tumors. Most of the information you read online refers to exocrine pancreatic cancer. A more rare type of pancreatic tumor affects the endocrine cells that produce and secrete hormones.
Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are over the age of 65, but the disease can occur in people in their forties and fifties as well. According to the American Cancer Society, smokers and people who have three or more alcoholic drinks a day are at an elevated risk for pancreatic cancer. Some people also inherit genetic mutations that can eventually lead to the development of the disease.
Pancreatic cancer is known as “a silent disease” because symptoms take a long time to appear, which makes early diagnosis challenging. As the cancer progresses, symptoms can include the following:
- Dark urine, pale stools, stools that float in the toilet, or diarrhea in certain cases
- Jaundice (yellow cast to skin and eyes)
- Pain in the upper part of the belly
- Pain in the middle part of the back that doesn’t go away with a shift in position
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weakness or feeling very tired, dizziness, and chills
- Decreased appetite or feelings of fullness
- Unexplained weight loss