Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors and Symptoms

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Pancreatic cancer is considered to be among the most common types of cancer that one can be diagnosed with. However, it is also often referred to as the “silent killer” due it to having little to no symptoms until the cancer has reached a much later stage; or, the symptoms will be quite vague and can often mimic other health conditions. As you may have heard, Canadian celebrity and ‘Jeopardy’ host Alex Trebek recently announced that he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This announcement has not only helped open the dialogue on the deadly disease but is also helping to raise awareness.

In Canada, an estimated 5,000 individuals are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year, while the United States sees as many as 50,000 cases. Though it affects both genders, it is a cancer that tends to be more prominent in men than women. As for what causes pancreatic cancer, there are several factors that can put you at an increased risk of developing it. Some of these risk factors are modifiable, while others are non-modifiable. Modifiable risk factors are ones that you can change, while non-modifiable risk factors cannot.

Modifiable Risk Factors

Smoking: Those who smoke cigarettes (tobacco) are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than those who are non-smokers. In fact, smoking is often the most common cause as to why one develops pancreatic cancer. Therefore, if you are a smoker, you should speak with your physician for smoking cessation tips.
Diet: If you consume a diet that is high in things like fried foods, processed meats, as well as cholesterol, then you are at an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. To reduce your risk (as well as to benefit your overall health and wellbeing) you should have a healthy diet that consists of plenty of fruits, vegetables and fibre.
Obesity: Often caused as a result of poor diet and lack of exercise, being obese or significantly overweight can also increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. It is important to get regular physical activity in order to stay as healthy as possible.
Alcohol: Consumption of alcohol (2 or more drinks per day) can not only increase your risk of pancreatic cancer, but also pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), therefore you should limit your alcohol intake.

Non-Modifiable Risk Factors

Age: Approximately 90% of individuals who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are aged 55 and older. Therefore, as you age, your risk of developing pancreatic cancer also increases.
Race: While the reasons are not clear, individuals who are of Ashkenazi-Jewish or African-American heritage are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, though it can still affect individuals of any race.
Genetics: It is not uncommon for pancreatic cancer to run in families, therefore it can be inherited. As many as 5 to 10 percent of pancreatic cancers are related to hereditary factors.
Underlying health conditions: Conditions such as diabetes are known to increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer has also been known to directly cause diabetes mellitus, a condition in which your body does not properly use the energy from the food you eat.

As mentioned, symptoms of pancreatic cancer typically do not present until the cancer has reached a much later stage. The symptoms can also vary depending on where the cancer is located in the pancreas (such as the head, body or tail.) However, below are some of the most common symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer.

• Upper abdominal pain
• Back pain
• Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
• Changes in stool colour
• Loss of appetite
• Unexplained weight loss
• Nausea
• Vomiting
• Diarrhea
• Constipation

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