It’s true that many cancers can have distinct warning signs. For example, abnormal lumps, unusual blemishes or unexplained bleeding can all be typical indicators. But other clues might not be so obvious – particularly for pancreatic cancer, which has earned the nickname the “silent cancer.” These, then, are the subtle symptoms that you shouldn’t ignore.
Cancer, by its most basic definition, occurs when abnormal cells multiply and begin to exceed regular cells in a person’s body. And in such an occurrence, the body will find it difficult to perform as it is meant to. So there are many forms of cancer because this abnormality in the cells can form in any part of the body.
There are external factors that can contribute to the risk of developing cancer, too. Smoking, for example, is one of the most common contributors to the onset of the disease. In fact, smoking is known to be the cause of 15 separate forms of the illness, and its influence also results in cancer’s largest fatality rate.
Meanwhile, another factor that could put adults at risk of developing tumors is obesity. You see, fat is active, and the signals it emits can confuse the body’s cells. So this might lead to abnormal cellular behavior – resulting in cancer. Obesity is, in fact, linked to the two most common forms of the disease: breast and bowel cancer.
Alcohol, too, can be a risk factor in developing cancer – as can consuming excessive amounts of red or processed meat. But there can be other external influences that it’s not always possible to avoid. The sun, for example, emits U.V. rays that are the biggest contributor to developing skin cancer.
It is, however, potentially possible to reduce the risk of developing cancer by cutting down or completely omitting any of the external factors that might cause the disease. For instance, stopping smoking or reducing alcohol intake can help, as can adopting a healthy diet and increasing physical exercise. For others, though, it’s in the genes.
Indeed, the risk of cancer might increase with faulty genes that can be passed from one generation to the next. Inheriting the disease, however, is rare, and, although more than a third of people will develop cancer in their lifetimes, the prognosis isn’t always bad. In fact, SEER statistics suggest that only 0.2 percent per 100,000 sufferers will lose their battles with the condition each year in the U.S.
Cancer treatments are most effective when the disease is detected in its early stages, though. It is important, then, that any signs of the illness are not ignored if they develop. And although symptoms can vary depending on the type of cancer, some of the warnings can be quite recognizable.
One of the most identifiable signs of the condition can of course be an abnormal lump – particularly in cases of breast and testicular cancer. However, persistent swelling or an unusual mass can appear anywhere from the neck to the chest, armpit, groin and stomach. So if it’s not clear what it is, it should be checked out.
Another common symptom of cancer can be unexplained bleeding. For example, coughing up blood or its appearance in the urine or faeces should be a warning. In fact, any changes in toilet habits, such as diarrhea or difficulty producing movement in the bowel or bladder, could be warning signs.
However, there are other cancer symptoms that might not be as apparent. A cough you can’t get rid of, for example, or ulcers, sores and other pains that won’t go away can be signs of the disease. Persistent indigestion, troubling swallowing or unusual weight loss are others. Then there’s abnormal tiredness, fatigue or night sweats.
But there is a type of cancer that can be particularly hard to detect. This cancer did, however, have a spotlight shone on it when a well-known figure was diagnosed with the disease. You see, on March 6, 2019, a video was posted to the Jeopardy! Twitter page direct from its host, Alex Trebek.
Trebek said in the clip, “Hi everyone. I have some news to share with all of you, and it’s in-keeping with my long-term policy of being open and transparent with our Jeopardy! fanbase. I also wanted to prevent you from reading or hearing some overblown or inaccurate reports regarding my health.”
“I wanted to be the one to pass on this information,” Trebek continued. “Now, just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.” News of cancer itself is devastating for anyone, of course. But stage four cancer is particularly advanced.
Yet what does that actually mean? Well, doctors have their own language to define the severity of cancer, known as the T.N.M. staging system. “T” relates to the tumor, with its size defined on a scale of one, being the smallest, up to four, which is the largest. “N” refers to the lymph nodes. This is signified by a number from zero to three, depending on how many are affected.
And the “M” of the T.N.M. system relates to whether the cancer has spread. For this, there is a binary option: zero for no, and one for yes. One doctor can therefore describe a cancer as T1 N1 M0, and another specialist will understand it to mean that the cancer is in its early stages. On the other hand, a T4 N3 M1 tumor will be more severe.
As soon as a diagnosis is made, then, doctors will know what stage the cancer is at, based on its size and spread. But for the patient, the T.N.M. system is simplified into numbered stages from one to four. So stage one applies to cancer in its earliest form, while stage four is very serious.
To illustrate, stage one cancer could be a small mass localized to the area in which it originated. Stage two cancer, then, could be larger in mass but yet to spread to surrounding areas. However, it is possible for stage two cancer to spread to lymph nodes – depending on which type of cancer it is.
Yet stage three cancer is larger than stage two. There’s a chance the cancer cells will have started to spread to other tissues as well as any surrounding lymph nodes too. Meanwhile, stage four cancer, also called metastatic or secondary cancer, will likely have spread to other organs.
As previously mentioned, then, any type of cancer treatment will be more successful if the disease is detected early. It is therefore important not to ignore symptoms that could indicate the presence of the disease. Yet Trebek’s pancreatic cancer was already at stage four when he was diagnosed. That’s probably because pancreatic cancer is different to other forms of the condition.
It’s not for nothing that cancer affecting the pancreas has earned a reputation as the “silent cancer,” after all. This is partly due to where the pancreas sits in the body – a position that means that cancer can be hard to detect at first. The disease often isn’t picked up until it’s more advanced, in fact, or in the later stages defined in the T.N.M. system.
The pancreas is vital to digestive functions, though. For example, the organ secretes fluids that counteract acids that form as food passes through the small intestine and aids the breakdown of fats, carbohydrates and proteins. In an adult, the pancreas is actually around six inches long and is located to the rear of the stomach.
Dr. Marc Matrana is a cancer specialist at Louisana’s Ochsner Health System. As he described to Simplemost in March 2019, pancreatic cancer is particularly hard to detect because symptoms rarely materialize until it has spread to other organs. Early diagnosis of this cancer type, then, is unusual.
Yet the spread of pancreatic cancer to surrounding organs can occur quickly. As Dr. Matrana explained, “Pancreatic cancer is particularly deadly because of the pancreas’ location, which is in the middle of the abdomen and close to vital organs.” So the pancreas’ proximity to other parts of the anatomy increases the risk of metastasis.
The symptoms that result from early-stage pancreatic cancer can easily be misdiagnosed too. Due to the functions of the pancreas, you see, the ailments that occur from the disease can lead even doctors to believe something other than cancer is the cause. If the following signs do appear, however, consider a visit to a medical expert.
So, as suggested elsewhere, the main function of the pancreas is to manage blood sugar levels. The presence of cancer can affect the production of hormones that occur as part of the organ’s normal function, however. Irregular activity can, then, cause around 80 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer to develop diabetes or glucose intolerance.
Dr. Omar Llaguna serves the Cancer Institute in Miami as a surgical oncologist. He told Simplemost, “[Sudden-onset diabetes] has lead researchers to believe that pancreatic cancer can either cause diabetes or that diabetes can actually promote the development of pancreatic cancer.” Either way, though, sudden changes in blood sugar levels shouldn’t be overlooked.
Dr. Llaguna continued, “New-onset diabetes is oftentimes an ignored symptom which may suggest the presence of pancreatic cancer.” Warning signs include unexplained weight gain or loss, excessive hunger or thirst, frequently passing water, wounds taking a long time to heal, blurred vision and moodiness. So if you experience these unusual characteristics, seek medical advice.
Yet those already diagnosed with diabetes and whose conditions are well managed shouldn’t ignore unusual behavior in their typical symptoms, either. Sudden spikes or drops in blood sugar levels, for example, could be cancer warning signals. Any unforseen changes in the condition should therefore be taken seriously.
The pancreas also plays a role in digestion and, as previously discussed, helps break down food compounds such as fats, proteins and carbohydrates. When this process is disrupted due to the presence of cancerous cells or a tumor, though, side effects can occur. One such symptom is a constant feeling of sickness or throwing up.
Dr. Ehsan Ali is a specialist in internal and geriatric medicine in California. He explained to Simplemost, “If the pancreas is not working properly due to cancer, this will lead to upsetting the digestive process, with symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.” And if these symptoms persist without explanation, cancer could be a cause.
Yet another potential symptom is jaundice. This is a condition signified by a yellowish discoloration of the skin or white parts of the eyes. When cancer is present in the pancreas, you see, it can cause a blockage of secretions into the small intestine from the gallbladder. This, in turn, can cause a build up of excess bilirubin, which is the waste substance that causes jaundice.
Yet if the growth of a tumor in the pancreas puts pressure on organs or nerves, other symptoms may occur. For example, it could result in unexplained abdominal or back pain – or it might even cause the digestive process to become blocked.
And if a tumor affects digestion, either by slowing or blocking the process, the result can be a lack of appetite. Yet although signs might not be persistent, they can include a feeling of nausea and indigestion and a drop in weight. These symptoms in isolation, however, needn’t be bad news.
In fact, one or even a combination of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily signify pancreatic cancer. But we know that early detection of the disease is crucial for successful treatment. So, due to the nature and location of the pancreas – and its difficulty to treat – if symptoms are persistent they should always be checked by a specialist.
Interestingly, it seems that the tissue that surrounds tumors located in the pancreas is of a very dense variety. Dr. Llaguna explained to Simplemost how the thick tissue may also be significant in protecting this type of cancer from radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Pancreatic cancer, therefore, can be particularly resistant to these types of treatments.
“This dense tissue acts as a barrier which surrounds the tumor,” Dr. Llaguna explained. However, treatments are evolving. He said, “Research efforts are now in place to develop drugs which can help break down that barrier in order to improve the delivery of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the tumor.”
Indeed, figures from the American Cancer Society show that pancreatic cancer currently has a survival rate of just 9 percent over five years. Catch it in its early stages, however, and the odds increase dramatically to 34 percent. Trebek, then, brought necessary attention to the disease with his own diagnosis. And the Jeopardy! host vowed to battle the disease.
“Normally the prognosis for [pancreatic cancer] is not very encouraging,” Trebek confessed to his Twitter fans. But, he vowed, “I’m going to fight this. And I’m going to keep working. And with the love and support of my family and friends, and with the help of your prayers also, I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease.”
The video has received nearly 17 million views on Twitter – therefore raising a deadly issue with a vast audience. Trebek, however, had a confession to make. “Truth told: I have to [beat pancreatic cancer],” the 78-year-old admitted. “Under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years!”