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Heartbreaking Words: "If Only I'd Known the Symptoms"

By Kathy Hubbard

One morning Clive looked in the mirror and was shocked. Days before he’d complained to my brother that he didn’t have any energy, but attributed it to the stress of his work and the upcoming elaborate, expensive wedding of his oldest daughter. But this day, he woke up yellow.

His skin was yellow, the whites of his eyes were yellow, and although he’d had a good night’s sleep, he felt fatigued. After a trip to an emergency care clinic followed by several doctor appointments and a whole bunch of tests, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“If only I’d known the symptoms, I would have gotten treatment earlier,” Clive said.

These words resonated with me when I read an article recently about Jeopardy host, Alex Trebek, who said, “I wish I had known sooner that the persistent stomach pain I experienced prior to my diagnosis was a symptom of pancreatic cancer.”

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women. The five-year survival rate is nine percent. Slightly more men develop this disease than women. And, often in its early stages, there are no symptoms.

“Pancreatic cancer is often difficult to diagnose. This is because there are no specific, cost-effective screening tests that can easily and reliably find early-stage pancreatic cancer in people who have no symptoms. This means it is often not found until later stages when the cancer can no longer be removed with surgery and has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body,” the website www.Cancer.Net explains.

The pancreas is a gland located between the stomach and the spine in the abdomen. We know it best for making the enzymes that help digestion and hormones that control blood sugar levels. The American Cancer Society describes it as being “shaped a bit like a fish with a wide head, a tapering body, and a narrow, pointed tail. In adults, it’s about six inches long but less than two inches wide.”

We all know that our organs are made up of cells and that those cells divide to form new cells when our bodies need them. The old cells die off, and the new ones take their place. But, sometimes, this process breaks and cells divide that aren’t needed or the oldsters don’t die off. The result is a tumor.

A benign tumor is defined by one that doesn’t spread to other tissues or organs. A malignant one does and is what we call cancer. Depending on the type of cell they start in, pancreatic tumors are either exocrine or neuroendocrine tumors. Knowing the type of tumor is important because each responds to different types of treatment. The most common pancreatic cancers are exocrine tumors called adenocarcinoma.

Now that you know all that let’s talk about symptoms. Mayo Clinic says that you should see a healthcare provider if you have a pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to your back; you have a loss of appetite or unintended weight loss; depression; new-onset diabetes; blood clots; fatigue, or if like Clive you have yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice).

Jaundice is often caused when pancreatic cancer spreads to the liver. Other symptoms may include dark urine, light-colored or greasy stools, and itchy skin. Pancreatic cancer can also spread to the abdominal wall, lungs, bones, and/or lymph nodes.

“Rarely, pancreatic cancers cause diabetes because they destroy the insulin-making cells,” ACS says. “Symptoms can include feeling thirsty and hungry and having to urinate often. More often, cancer can lead to small changes in blood sugar levels that don’t cause symptoms of diabetes, but can still be detected with blood tests.”

It would be nice if there were, but there isn’t one factor that puts one at high risk. Smokers with long-standing diabetes and a poor diet will, however, top the list. Family history will also increase your risk, and it occurs most often in older (over 65) adults.

The first goal of pancreatic cancer treatment is to eliminate the cancer. For Clive, the focus was on preventing the cancer’s growth. He did beat the odds by living over six years. He might have lived longer if he’d known the symptoms.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.

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