Pancreatic cancer symptoms: signs and causes as scientists say cancer could be detected ‘in stool samples’

Pancreatic cancer could be detected from microorganisms in stool samples, new research suggests

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly types of cancer, partly due to the fact that symptoms are vague making the disease hard to detect.

The difficulty in spotting it has led to around four in five people being diagnosed when the cancer is at a late stage, causing them to miss out on life-saving treatment, and sadly, half of those die within three months of diagnosis.

More than 10,000 people are diagnosed with the disease in the UK every year, according to Pancreatic Cancer UK.

However, early detection does improve the odds of survival and scientists have now suggested that stool samples could help to identify cases.

What have researchers found?

New research has found that scientists may be able to detect pancreatic cancer by looking at microorganisms in stool samples.

The study, part-funded by Worldwide Cancer Research, found that 27 microbial species in stool samples could pinpoint people at high risk of the most common form of pancreatic cancer, raising hopes of a new screening test.

The 27 microbes, which were mostly bacteria, could distinguish between people without cancer and those with the disease, both in advanced and early stages.

Microbiome, which is the collection of fungi, bacteria and viruses that live inside our bodies, is known to interact with the immune system.

The study, published in the journal Gut, involved 136 people, including 57 with pancreatic cancer (25 early stage and 32 advanced), 50 without cancer acting as controls, and 29 patients with chronic pancreatitis, where the pancreas has become permanently damaged by inflammation.

Experts from the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) concluded it is “feasible” for a screening programme to be developed using stool samples that may help pick up pancreatic cancer.

A patent has been applied for development of a pancreatic cancer diagnostic kit that detects the microorganisms in stool samples in a rapid way.

Dr Helen Rippon, chief executive of Worldwide Cancer Research, said: “This new breakthrough builds on the growing evidence that the microbiome – the collection of microorganisms that live side by side with the cells inside our body – is linked to the development of cancer.

“What’s amazing about this discovery is that the microbiome of stool samples from patients could be used to help diagnose pancreatic cancer early.

“Early detection and diagnosis are just as important an approach to starting new cancer cures as developing treatments.

“This research provides hope that an effective, non-invasive way to diagnose pancreatic cancer early is on the horizon.”

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer can be found anywhere in the pancreas, which is the organ in the top part of your tummy that helps you to digest food

  • Pancreatic cancer is a cancer that’s found anywhere in the pancreas.The pancreas is an organ in the top part of your tummy.
  • It helps you digest your food and makes hormones, such as insulin.

Some people with pancreatic cancer may not experience any symptoms, or signs of the disease may be difficult to spot.

Around four in five people with the disease are diagnosed when pancreatic cancer is at a late stage (Photo: Shutterstock)Around four in five people with the disease are diagnosed when pancreatic cancer is at a late stage (Photo: Shutterstock)
Around four in five people with the disease are diagnosed when pancreatic cancer is at a late stage (Photo: Shutterstock)

The following symptoms are the key warning signs to look for, according to the NHS and Pancreatic Cancer UK:

  • the whites of your eyes, or under your skin, turn yellow (jaundice), and your skin may feel itchy
  • your urine may be darker and poo may be paler than usual
  • you may feel tired and lacking in energy
  • you may have a high temperature, or feel hot or shivery
  • you may have unexplained weight loss and a loss of appetite

If you experience any of these symptoms and they persist for more than four weeks, you should seek advice from a GP.

Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer can affect your digestion. This can include:

  • feeling or being sick
  • diarrhoea, constipation, or other changes in your poo
  • pain at the top of your stomach and your back. This may feel worse when you are eating or lying down, and feel better while leaning forward.
  • symptoms of indigestion, such as bloating, 

Those who suffer with other conditions like irritable bowel syndrome may experience some of the above symptoms quite regularly, but it is still important to get checked by a GP if you notice any changes, or if symptoms worsen.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

Anyone can get pancreatic cancer, but it is more common among older people and it is not always clear what causes it.

The NHS says you are more likely to get the disease if:

  • you are over the age of 75. Pancreatic cancer is not very common among people under the age of 40
  • you have certain medical conditions, such as long-term chronic pancreatitis
  • your family has a history of pancreatic cancer

Developing pancreatic cancer can also be linked to your lifestyle, so making healthy changes can help to lower your risk of getting it.

This can include losing weight if you are overweight, reducing the amount of red and processed food meat you consume, such as ham, bacon and salami, cutting down the amount of alcohol you consume (you should avoid drinking more than 14 units per week) and quitting smoking.

How is pancreatic cancer detected?

Various tests and scans will need to be carried out to check for pancreatic cancer if your GP refers you to a specialist.

This can include a blood test, an ultrasound, CT, PET or MRI scan, a biopsy from the pancreas, or a laparoscopy, which is a small operation to look inside your tummy.

Can pancreatic cancer be treated?

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to treat and will be dependent on the size and type of cancer you have, where it is in your body, if it has spread, and your overall health.

Treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and supportive care to help you manage your symptoms.

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