5 warning signs that your pancreas is in trouble

Quickly name the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “pancreas.” If you say “cancer,” you’re not alone. Most people only think of pancreatic cancer when they hear of pancreatic cancer, the deadliest type of cancer with a 5-year survival rate. “Part of the reason for the low survival rate is that pancreatic cancer is so difficult to recognize early,” says Andrew Hendivar, M.D., director of pancreatic oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Early detection is also difficult when it comes to noncancerous pancreatic disease.
Located deep in the abdomen, the pancreas is a long, flat organ that produces enzymes and hormones that help digestion. Although symptoms of pancreatic problems can be bothersome, Eberle and Hendivar say there are several warning signs when you should see your doctor. Here are five of them.

1. Your poop looks strange:

If you notice that your stool is light in color and liquid, it’s a sign of poor nutrient absorption. “Enzymes produced by the pancreas help digest the fats in your diet,” Hendivar explains. In addition to breaking down fats, the pancreas helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as A, E and K, he says.
When pancreatic disease impairs the organs’ ability to produce these enzymes properly, the result is pale, less voluminous stools. You may also notice that your poop is greasy or oily. “There will be an oily film on the toilet water,” Hendevar says. He explains that these are dietary fats that your body hasn’t been able to break down.
If you occasionally notice that your poop looks strange, don’t be alarmed. But if all or almost all of your feces have these signs, tell your doctor.

2. Your insides hurt:

Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of both pancreatic cancer and acute pancreatitis, a potentially deadly type of infection, Hendivar says. But this pain manifests itself differently depending on the underlying disease. Eberle says that if the pain starts in the middle of the abdomen and then “spreads” to the middle or lower back — and if it continues for several weeks — it could be a sign of pancreatic cancer. Also, if you have already been to the doctor and have been prescribed a medication called a proton pump inhibitor – such as omeprazole (Prilosec) or esomeprazole (Nexium) – tell your doctor if the symptoms do not improve. Doctors usually mistake pancreatic cancer for pain from reflux or other digestive problems that proton pump inhibitors should address, Hendivar says.
On the other hand, if the pain is sudden, severe and centered in the abdomen, it’s the type associated with acute pancreatitis, Eberle says.
Either way, there’s no need to panic. Hendivar says that many health problems — some serious, but many mild — can cause abdominal pain. Just see your doctor.

3. Diabetes makes itself known:

The pancreas produces hormones that help control the body’s production of insulin as well as blood sugar levels. When pancreatic function is impaired, people are more prone to developing type 2 diabetes, he said. If your weight is under control and you follow a healthy diet, a new diagnosis of diabetes should lead to a more thorough examination of your pancreas.
The same is true for a woman with diabetes who suddenly finds it difficult to manage her disease. “Sudden changes in diabetes without a clear explanation is what we associate with pancreatic cancer,” he says.

4. You feel nauseous after eating a hamburger:

Hendivar says nausea and vomiting are symptoms to watch out for, especially if you eat fatty foods. Again, because the pancreas produces enzymes that help the digestive system break down fats, diseases that disrupt the pancreas usually impair the body’s ability to digest fats, leading to nausea. “Hamburgers often cause nausea, as do avocados and nuts, all of which are high in fat,” he says. “Pizza is another really challenging method for patients with impaired pancreas.” Eberle says pancreatitis is more likely to cause sudden vomiting and nausea than pancreatic cancer.

5. You are experiencing weight loss:

It’s very tempting to take credit for your new diet. But if you’re losing weight-and especially if you’re experiencing the diffuse pain described above-the weight loss may be due to digestive problems related to cancer or pancreatic disease, Hendevar says. Thyroid problems and some other conditions can also explain the rapid weight loss. In either case, you need to see your doctor.


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