Early Detection and Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer - Episode 2

Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

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Kristie L. Kahl: Why is it important for people to understand the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Diane Simeone: It’s very important for physicians and patients to understand what can be the early signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is a disease that can present with a variety of signs and symptoms. Some of the symptoms are unexplained weight loss, especially in an older patient; pain, which tends to be in the upper abdomen; or jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes. The reason people can develop jaundice with pancreatic cancer is the bile duct, which transports bile from the liver, which goes right through the head of the pancreas. If there's a tumor there, it can actually put a squeeze on the bile duct and obstruct it. Diabetes is also an important one to be aware of: new onset diabetes, especially if it's associated with weight loss instead of weight gain.

Kristie L. Kahl: Is there any one symptom in particular that should be a red flag?

Diane Simeone: A lot of people will get some vague upper abdominal pain and they'll see their doctor. They’ll often will be prescribed as gastritis, an ulcer or reflux, and may be put on some over-the-counter medicines. If the symptoms don't go away, then it's really important to be persistent in making sure that something more serious isn't going on, like a pancreatic tumor. I always say patients should be their own best advocate. People know their body. If something doesn't seem right, then don't be hesitant to continue to ask a doctor to check out what's wrong. If you're seeing a doctor that isn't really following through satisfactorily with trying to figure out what those symptoms are, then I would suggest getting a second opinion.

Kristie L. Kahl: If someone is experiencing one of these symptoms, what should they do next?

Diane Simeone: Certainly, a good starting place is with your internist. If you have unexplained weight loss, upper abdominal pain, unexplained pancreatitis, new onset diabetes associated with weight loss jaundice, please immediately check in with your internist. A proper referral should happen to a center that has expertise in the diagnosis and management of pancreas cancer. The National Pancreas Foundation has done a very good job identifying what centers are around the country. And in every state, there is a center that has expertise in the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Kristie L. Kahl: Similar to what should they do next, what should they not do?

Diane Simeone: You don't want to make a rushed decision on a treatment plan. It's often not an emergency. What you want to do is to get all the information you need to make a wise decision. Seek out an expert in pancreatic cancer so that you can fully understand all the treatment options you have at your disposal. And you don't want to burn a bridge by embarking down a path that might not be the best treatment plan.

Kristie L. Kahl: How can we help to raise more awareness around these signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Diane Simeone: It's important just to continue to try to educate the public to make awareness about some of these signs and symptoms so that if a patient has them, a more serious problem like pancreatic cancer is considered. I see lots of patients in the clinic and they have big signs and symptoms. Hearing their story would have raised a red flag for me. But it took six months of return visits to the doctor until finally somebody ordered that scan that showed the mass in the pancreas. It's about awareness, not just to the physician community but also to individuals out there. Pancreatic cancer, in the past, is thought to be a rare cancer, but it's actually not that rare. Close to 60,000 people each year are afflicted with pancreatic cancer in the US. And unfortunately, if we don't make advances with pancreatic cancer, it's going to become the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. We're really working very hard to get the message out and increase awareness about pancreatic cancer risk factors, and signs and symptoms.