Quick, say the first thing that pops into your head when you read the word “pancreas.”
If you said “cancer,” you’re not alone. Most people only think about their pancreas when they hear about pancreatic cancer—which is the deadliest form of cancer in terms of 5-year survival rates.
“Part of the reason survival rates are so low is that identifying pancreatic cancer early is difficult,” says Andrew Hendifar, MD, codirector of pancreas oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Early detection is also tough when it comes to non-cancer pancreas problems, says Ted Epperly, MD, president of Family Medicine Residency of Idaho.
Tucked deep in your abdomen, your pancreas is a long, flat organ that produces enzymes and hormones that aid in digestion. While symptoms of pancreas issues can be persnickety, both Epperly and Hendifar say there are a handful of warning signs that warrant a call to your doctor. Here are 5 of them.
Your poop looks funny.
If you notice your stool is light colored and floating, that’s a sign of poor nutrient absorption. “The enzymes your pancreas produces help you digest fats in your diet,” Hendifar explains. Along with breaking down fats, your pancreas helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, and K, he says.
When pancreatic disease messes with your organ’s ability to properly manufacture those enzymes, the result is feces that looks paler and is less dense. You may also notice your poop is oily or greasy. “The toilet water will have a film that looks like oil,” Hendifar says. That’s the dietary fat your body failed to break down, he explains.
If you notice your poop looks funky now and then, that’s no reason to freak out. But if all or most of your bowel movements have these characteristics, let your doctor know.
Your insides ache.
Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of both pancreatic cancer and acute pancreatitis, which is a type of deadly inflammation, Hendifar says. But that pain manifests in different ways depending on the underlying condition.
If the pain seems to start in your middle before “radiating” into your mid or lower back—and if it lingers for weeks—that may be a sign of pancreatic cancer, Epperly says. Also, if you’ve already seen your doctor and he or she has prescribed a type of drug called a proton-pump inhibitor—such as omeprazole (Prilosec) or esomeprazole (Nexium)—let your doc know if your symptoms don’t improve. Hendifar says it’s common for doctors to mistake pancreatic cancer–triggered pain for reflux or other GI issues, many of which a proton-pump inhibitor should help resolve.
On the other hand, if the pain comes on suddenly and is intense and focused in the middle of your abdomen, that’s the type associated with acute pancreatitis, Epperly says.
In either case, don’t freak out. A lot of health issues—some serious, but many mild—can cause stomach aches or pain, Hendifar adds. Just get yourself to a doctor.
Diabetes rears its head.
Your pancreas produces hormones that help control your body’s production of insulin, as well as your blood sugar levels. When the pancreas is imperiled, it’s common for sufferers to develop type 2 diabetes, Hendifar says. If your weight is under control and you eat a healthy diet, a new diabetes diagnosis should lead to a closer examination of your pancreas.
The same holds for a diabetes sufferer who suddenly finds her disease hard to manage. “Those sudden changes in diabetes status without an obvious explanation, those are things we see associated with pancreatic cancer,” he says.
You’re nauseated after burgers.
Nausea and vomiting are symptoms to watch out for—particularly if you’ve been eating fatty foods, Hendifar says. Again, because your pancreas produces enzymes that help your digestive system break down fat, diseases that mess with your pancreas tend to mess with your body’s fat-digesting capabilities, which leads to nausea. “Hamburgers are often nausea triggers, and so are avocados and nuts, which are all high in fat,” he says. “Pizza is another one that’s really tough for patients with a compromised pancreas.” Epperly says pancreatitis is more likely than pancreatic cancer to lead to sudden vomiting and nausea.
You’re experiencing weight loss.
It’s tempting to credit your new diet. But if you’re shedding weight—and especially if you’re experiencing the radiating pain described above—that weight loss could be due to the digestive issues associated with pancreatic cancer or disease, Hendifar says. Thyroid issues and some other health conditions can also explain rapid weight loss. In any case, you need to see someone.