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Your pancreas—a long, flat organ tucked deep into your abdomen—has many important functions, including producing insulin to keep your blood sugar steady. But the first thing that come to many people’s minds when they see the word “pancreas” is cancer, especially since Alex Trebek’s diagnosis and death recently flooded the news.
One of the things that makes pancreatic cancer so feared is that it’s the deadliest form of cancer in terms of 5-year survival rates. Typically, only three percent of people diagnosed with metastatic, or stage 4, pancreatic cancer are alive five years after diagnosis.
As of now, there aren’t routine screening tests for cancer of the pancreas, and there aren’t always obvious signs your pancreas isn’t healthy, so it’s hard to know if it’s brewing in your body. “Part of the reason survival rates are so low is that identifying pancreatic cancer early is difficult,” says Andrew Hendifar, M.D., co-director of pancreas oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
But other things can go wrong with your pancreas, too, such as various forms of pancreatitis (that means there’s inflammation in that organ). Those don’t always give super obvious signs, either, so early detection of these non-cancer issues can be tough, too, explains Ted Epperly, M.D., president of Family Medicine Residency of Idaho. But sometimes, your pancreas does give you clues that something’s up that you need to pay attention to.
When it comes to something going wrong with your pancreas, both Dr. Epperly and Dr. Hendifar say there are a handful of warning signs that warrant a call to your doctor. Here are 5 of them.
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Pancreas Problem #1: Your poop looks funny.
If you notice your stool is light colored and floating, that’s a sign of poor nutrient absorption, which could mean your pancreas is being hampered from doing its job.
“The enzymes your pancreas produces help you digest fats in your diet,” Dr. Hendifar explains. The pancreas also helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, and K, he says.
When pancreatic disease messes with the organ’s ability to properly manufacture those enzymes, your stool looks paler and becomes less dense.
You may also notice your poop is oily or greasy.“The toilet water will have a film that looks like oil,” Dr. Hendifar says. That’s the dietary fat your body failed to break down, he explains.
If you notice your poop looks funky now and then, that’s no reason to freak out. But if all or most of your poops have these characteristics, let your doctor know.
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Pancreas Problem #2: Your insides ache.
Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of both pancreatic cancer and acute pancreatitis, which is a type of deadly inflammation, Dr. Hendifar says.
But that pain manifests in different ways depending on the underlying condition.
• If the pain seems to start in your middle before “radiating” into your middle or lower back—and if it lingers for weeks—that may be a sign of pancreatic cancer, Dr. Epperly says.
• If you’ve been on a proton-pump inhibitor for reflux or other GI issues and your symptoms don’t improve, let your doctor know. It’s common for doctors to mistake pain triggered by pancreatic cancer for reflux or other GI issues, many of which a proton-pump inhibitor should help resolve, Dr. Hendifar says.
• If pain comes on suddenly, is intense, and is focused in the middle of your abdomen, Dr. Epperly says, the issue could be acute pancreatitis.
In any case, don’t freak out. A lot of health issues—some serious, but many mild—can cause stomachaches or pain, Dr. Hendifar adds. Just get yourself to a doctor.
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Pancreas Problem #3: Diabetes rears its head.
Your pancreas produces hormones that help control your body’s production of insulin, as well as your blood sugar levels. So a new diagnosis of diabetes could indicate pancreas problems. Same with people who have diabetes but suddenly find their disease hard to manage.
“Those sudden changes in diabetes status without an obvious explanation, those are things we see associated with pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Hendifar says.
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Pancreas Problem #4: You’re nauseated after burgers.
Nausea and vomiting are symptoms to watch out for—particularly if you’ve been eating fatty foods, Dr. Hendifar says.
Again, because your pancreas produces enzymes that help your digestive system break down fat, diseases that affect your pancreas tend to mess with your body’s fat-digesting capabilities, which leads to nausea.
“Hamburgers are often nausea triggers, and so are avocados and nuts, which are all high in fat,” he says. “Pizza is another one that’s really tough for patients with a compromised pancreas.”
Dr. Epperly says pancreatitis is more likely than pancreatic cancer to lead to sudden vomiting and nausea.
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Pancreas Problem #5: You’re Losing Weight
If you’re shedding weight without trying—and especially if you’re experiencing that pain that radiates from your middle to your back—that weight loss could be due to the digestive issues associated with pancreatic cancer or disease, Dr. Hendifar says.
Thyroid issues and some other health conditions can also explain rapid weight loss. In any case, you need to see someone.