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Pancreatic cancer: Risk factors and symptoms

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Nov. 17, 2019— If this year is typical, about 56,000 people in the U.S. will learn they have pancreatic cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is hard to detect early. The pancreas is deep inside the body, which means doctors can't feel early tumors during routine physical exams.

What's more, pancreatic cancer usually doesn't cause symptoms until it has already spread. And there is no effective screening test—at least not yet—to find it in people at average risk.

Still, if you do have any of these possible signs of pancreatic cancer, tell your doctor right away:

  • Pain. It usually develops in the upper abdomen as a dull ache that wraps around the back. It can come and go. And it might be worse after eating.
  • Weight loss. It may be triggered by a lack of appetite—for example, feeling full after eating only a small amount of food. Diarrhea may also be to blame. Your bowel movements may look greasy and float in the toilet.
  • Jaundice. This causes yellowish skin and eyes. You may have dark urine, grayish-colored stools or itchy skin.

Risk factors you can't change

Doctors don't know exactly what causes pancreatic cancer. But they do know that certain things raise your risk. According to the ACS, some that can't be changed include:

  • Growing older. Almost all people with pancreatic cancer are over 45. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 70.
  • Race. African American people are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than white people.
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer.
  • Inherited genetic syndromes. In some cases, mutated genes may significantly raise the risk of pancreatic cancer as well as other cancers. One example is hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, caused by mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

Three risk factors you can control

1. Smoking. Cigarette smoking may be to blame for about 25% of all pancreatic cancers, according to the ACS. Cigar smoking also raises risk. So does using smokeless tobacco.

2. Excess weight. Staying at a healthy weight may help protect you from pancreatic cancer. Extra pounds, especially around your waist, raise risk. And being obese may raise your risk by about 20%, according to the ACS.

3. Diabetes. Pancreatic cancer is more common in people with type 2 diabetes, especially if you've had it for years. It's isn't clear if type 1 diabetes raises risk.

Testing options

If you are in a family with significant risk of pancreatic cancer, talk to your doctor about being screened with an endoscopic ultrasound or an MRI.

With these imaging tests, doctors have found early, treatable pancreatic cancers in some members of high-risk families.

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