If You Notice This on Your Skin, Get Checked for Pancreatic Cancer, Doctors Say
One particular symptom occurs in up to 90 percent of people with a specific type of this disease.
Unlike other illnesses which announce themselves with a variety of symptoms, the warning signs of pancreatic cancer can be easy to miss, or even non-existent, until the cancer is at an advanced stage—making it extremely difficult to treat. The numbers tell a scary story. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), approximately 62,210 people in the US will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2022, and an estimated 49,830 people will die of the disease.
Why is pancreatic cancer so hard to catch early? "The pancreas is deep inside the body, so early tumors can't be seen or felt by health care providers during routine physical exams," warns the ACS. "People usually have no symptoms until the cancer has become very large or has already spread to other organs."
Knowing the risk factors for pancreatic cancer is important, as is catching any potential red flags early on. Read on to find out about one symptom that may show up on your skin if you have a particular type of this disease.
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The pancreas perform several complex functions.
The pancreas is a gland located behind the stomach, in the upper abdomen, explains the Mayo Clinic: "The pancreas produces enzymes that help digestion and hormones that help regulate the way your body processes sugar (glucose)."
While it is possible to live without the pancreas, if it is removed, "People are left without the cells that make insulin and other hormones that help maintain safe blood sugar levels," says the ACS, which also notes that this causes diabetes, leading to complete dependence on insulin shots and enzyme pills to assist with digestion. "People who have had this surgery also need to take pancreatic enzyme pills to help them digest certain foods," says the site.
There are two types of pancreatic cancer.
As with other cancers, pancreatic cancer is caused when abnormal cells located in the organ grow, divide, and create a tumor. There are two types of pancreatic cancer tumors, exocrine and endocrine (neuroendocrine). "This is based on the type of cell they start in," says the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). "Knowing the type of tumor is important because each type acts differently and responds to different treatments."
According to PanCAN, over 90 percent of pancreatic cancers are exocrine; under ten percent are endocrine, also known as neuroendocrine or islet cell tumors, which "often grow slower than exocrine tumors."
"Pancreatic cancer's exact causes are not well understood," says PanCAN, noting that some of the risk factors include family history, smoking, obesity, and a diet high in red meats. "This does not mean that everyone who has these risk factors will get pancreatic cancer, or that everyone who gets pancreatic cancer has one or more of these," cautions PanCAN.
One type of pancreatic cancer can cause a specific symptom.
The potential signs of pancreatic cancer are subtle, varied, and often do not even occur until the disease has progressed, reports the Cleveland Clinic. Once the cancer has become more advanced, some of the warning signs may include fatigue, weight loss, and back pain. Another common symptom of pancreatic cancer is jaundice (when the skin and whites of the eyes turn a yellow color). "This can occur when a tumor blocks the bile duct connecting the pancreas to the liver," explains PanCAN. These increased levels of bilirubin (the bile's pigment) in the bloodstream is responsible not only for jaundice, but also "itchy skin, dark urine and light or clay-colored stools," PanCAN says.
A type of cancer called glucagonoma begins in neuroendocrine cells of the pancreas (responsible for producing a hormone called glucagon). Cancer Research UK notes that 70 to 90 percent of those afflicted by glucagonoma will get a rash known as necrolytic migratory erythema (NME).
Pancreatic cancer can cause a painful, itchy rash with blisters.
When a glucagonoma tumor causes blood sugar levels to increase, this can cause the painful, itchy NME rash. "It usually begins in parts of your body with creases—most commonly your groin area—and will spread from there," says WebMD. "It looks red and blotchy, with dry, crusty, white, or yellow patches."
"It was all over my face [and] I could literally shave only every other day, because it was so painful over the top of the blisters," Edward Williams told ABC News about his experience with NME. "I just thought I had a rash and was getting older and didn't have quite the energy and stamina." ABC News advises that "diabetes, diarrhea, and anemia" can also occur with NME—but did not for Williams, whose rash manifested under his arms, around his eyes, the backs of his legs, on his back, and behind his shoulders.
Fortunately for Williams, he persisted in speaking to medical providers about the rash and was diagnosed correctly and underwent successful surgery, but only after suffering from the condition for six years.
If you have a rash or other suspicious symptoms, make an appointment to get checked out by your healthcare provider as soon as possible.