Pancreatic cancer: what you need to know

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Awareness saves lives – find out more about detecting and understanding this disease today Cancer of the pancreas is known by two different names – carcinoma of the pancreas or pancreatic cancer – and is responsible for around 5% of cancer related deaths. It is known as the silent killer because the symptoms are so vague and non-specific that diagnosis can come too late. However, if people know the symptoms and avoid the known risks which trigger the illness, then there is always a chance. The first step is to understand exactly what the pancreas does and where it is located. Most people know they have one, few know exactly what its role is, or why it is important. The simple answer is this – it produces pancreatic digestive juices and insulin which help the body break down sugar, manage blood sugar levels and digest food. It is a very useful organ and it sits behind the stomach at the bottom of the breastbone, just below where the ribs meet. Now, onto establishing what factors put a person at risk of pancreatic cancer. The most important one to know about is smoking. Smoking has been directly linked to pancreatic cancer – protect yourself by putting those cigarettes out. There are so many ways to help you stop smoking that you will find support at every turn, and you will feel so much better when you’ve kicked the habit. “Cigarette smoking, being overweight and having a high bodyweight index with low activity drive this cancer quite a lot these days,” says Dr Jean-Marc Maurel,  an oncologist with a focus on gastro-intestinal cancer. “Diabetes is a complex risk factor as we are not certain of its connection in terms of causing the illness, or just being associated with it, but it is important to stay aware of the issues it can cause with a person’s health. Age is also a risk factor with the majority of people being over the age of 45/50.” If you do have diabetes it’s a good idea to change your diet and work towards managing the disease through exercise and healthy foods. This will also help you dodge two other risks – processed meat and obesity. A healthy diet has been shown to help prevent pancreatic cancer and Type II diabetes, and it will help you manage your weight effectively. Red meat and animal fats, on the other hand, are linked to an increase in pancreatic cancer, as is excessive alcohol intake. By ditching the bad stuff and aiming to eat the good stuff, your body and energy levels will change for the better. Race and gender may also have an impact on how likely it is for you to get the disease. Men and African Americans are historically more likely to suffer from it than women and Asians. Thus the most important things you can do today are to eat healthily, drink plenty of water, limit alcohol and exercise regularly. All these choices take you towards a healthier version of yourself, and help you cut down on the risks associated with the disease. Pancreatic cancer is known as the silent killer because, as mentioned earlier, the symptoms are so vague, but there are some very specific things you can look out for. Many of the side effects of a tumour may affect you differently depending on where it is located. “Unfortunately a lot of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer are quite vague initially and related to its location deep within the abdomen,” says Dr Maurel. “So you will get heartburn and bloating and tiredness and often specific symptoms may only come on when the tumour is more advanced. If the bile duct is compressed then patients present with jaundice, for example. There isn’t any method of screening for pancreatic cancer as yet, so stay healthy and be aware of your diet and lifestyle so you can cover those bases.” Another symptom is pain which sits at the top of the stomach area or radiates into the back – if this happens, make an appointment to see your healthcare professional. Also take note of symptoms such as nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss and weakness, as well as dizziness, diarrhoea or muscle pain. Even if though these aches and pains may not be anything more than a stomach bug or the after effects of some intense exercise, it’s worth getting them checked out. At least your mind, and that of your family, will be put at rest. Just remember, by staying healthy, paying attention to symptoms and avoiding the risk factors you are already ten steps ahead of the disease.

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