Pancreatic Cancer Prevention and Warning Signs

Jennifer L. Gnerlich, MD, FACS, FSSO is a specialty care physician in general surgery and complex general surgical oncology at Inova Schar Cancer Institute. She specializes in upper Gastrointestinal (GI) cancers and carcinomatosis.

With the recent deaths of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Alex Trebek, more people want to know about pancreatic cancer. While not a common cancer, the amount of people affected are increasing every year with an estimated 60,430 men and women expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year.

The hardest part about pancreatic cancer is that there is no screening test, no blood work or X-ray to detect this cancer at an early stage. Instead, every person needs to be aware of warning signs that can suggest they might be at risk for having pancreatic cancer. These warning signs are often vague but can include:

  1. Skin or the whites of eyes turning yellow
  2. Indigestion or a bad stomach ache that does not get better with antacids
  3. Mid-back pain that does not get better with medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  4. Unexplained weight loss when there has been no change in diet or exercise
  5. New diagnosis of diabetes late in life

While a person at any age can be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are between the ages of 55 and 85 years old. If you are diagnosed with diabetes late in life and have no other risks factors for it (obesity, eating food high in sugar/carbs), you may want to ask your doctor if you are at risk for pancreatic cancer.

Along with having no good screening test, there are only two ways to actively prevent the disease. The main prevention is to stop any tobacco smoking. Through research, we have now learned that smoking is the number one modifiable risk factor that a person can do to prevent pancreatic cancer. The second thing is to maintain a normal weight. Obesity is also associated with pancreatic cancer, so make sure to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Also, try to eat healthy with normal sized food portions. A good way to cut out sugar in your life is to remove all juice and soda. Try to drink water, tea (unsweetened), or coffee (no cream or sugar).

If you or your family member is worried about pancreatic cancer or problems with the pancreas, you should see a surgeon who specializes in pancreatic disease. At Inova, the Surgical Oncology/HPB team is happy to see you and answer any questions. Please call the Inova Schar Cancer Institute at 571-472-4724 to set up an appointment.

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