While cancer figures largely in modern media, surprisingly little is written about cancer of the pancreas or pancreatic cancer. It is not as common as say lung or breast cancer, but it is still the fifth most common cause of death from cancer, and every year here in the UK nearly 8000 people are diagnosed with the problem.
This type of cancer can occur at any age, but it is far more common in people aged between 50 and 85; around 63% of people diagnosed are over 70, and there is a higher frequency among men.
The pancreas is an essential part of our body, a gland that produces digestive enzymes (proteins) plus that essential hormone insulin. The digestive enzymes help to break down food so that it can be absorbed by the body, while insulin helps to keep sugar levels in the blood stable.
The pancreas is located just behind the stomach, where the ribs meet the bottom of the breastbone. It is shaped like a leaf, and is around six inches (15cm) long.
One problem with pancreatic cancer is that the early symptoms can be vague, and also vary depending on where exactly the cancer is within the pancreas. Unexpected weight loss is one symptom but the most commonly reported first symptom is pain. This can be in the back, but more often it is in the stomach area first and becomes worse after meals, or when you lie down. People have described it as a dull pain that feels as if it is boring into you.
Another main symptom is jaundice. This can include the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, darker urine and lighter coloured stools. Not everyone presents the same early problems, and non specific symptoms such as fever and shivering, itching and sickness are sometimes also indications of pancreatic cancer.
It is this range of early symptoms that make pancreatic cancer especially dangerous because it is so difficult to detect, which may mean that the condition is not diagnosed until the cancer is relatively advanced.