With November dedicated to raising awareness of no fewer than four different cancers, Dr Zak looks at pancreatic cancer, and asks the question, would you be able to spot the signs?

WHILE we are very aware that a cough for more than three weeks, especially in anyone who smokes, could be a sign of lung cancer, a recent survey of 4,000 individuals by the charity Pancreatic Cancer UK showed that more than a third of adults with potential symptoms of pancreatic cancer would not be aware of their importance, or worse simply ignore them.

This is worrying news for a disease where survival is less than one in ten, five years after diagnosis, with early identification and treatment of the utmost importance. Pancreatic cancer is the fifth most prevalent cancer in the UK, with about 10,000 new cases every year.

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The pancreas is a tadpole shaped organ which sits behind the stomach and intestines. It has two important roles; producing enzymes which help with breaking down food, and the hormones insulin and glucagon; vital to controlling the amount of sugars in the bloodstream. Bile is made in the liver and transported from there to the gallbladder, where it is stored. After eating, it flows down the bile duct to the intestines, where it also aids in digestion.

In three quarters of cases, cancer initially arises in the head of the pancreas. As this is very close to the bile duct, even a small cancer here can block this duct, leading to symptoms. Because bile cannot enter the intestines, it flows into the blood giving a yellow tinge to the skin and whites of the eyes, known as jaundice. Fats are not broken down and absorbed; hence they are lost in faeces, which become pale and difficult to flush away.

Other complaints such as pain in your tummy, indigestion, difficult swallowing, nausea and vomiting, and even back pain may not seem an obvious link, but nonetheless should not be ignored.

The above list may seem like a frighteningly large and diverse bunch of symptoms, but please remember that the majority of these will not be due to pancreatic cancer. However, knowing your own body and recognising any persistent change should prompt you to seek urgent medical advice.

PANCREATIC cancer typically affects older individuals. It is thankfully rare under the age of forty. A small number of individuals will have a parent who also had the disease. It is linked to diabetes, but most people with diabetes will not develop pancreatic cancer.

Although certain factors cannot be altered, there is much that you can do to reduce your risk. Smoking and a diet high in fat and meat have been implicated. Obesity is associated with multiple cancers, including that of the pancreas, as well as ill health in general.

Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, is most commonly due to gallstones or alcohol. A proportion of individuals with recurrent pancreatitis will develop pancreatic cancer.

While it would be easy to live in fear of cancer, to do so would be a waste of a life.

Small lifestyle modifications as well as seeking medical advice if something doesn’t feel right will hopefully put you in the best position.