While pancreatic diseases are rare, they can be serious. Symptoms tend to appear when the disease is already in an advanced stage. Professor Pascal Crane, a hepatologist, gastroenterologist, and nutritionist, lists those who should be alert.
Steatorrhea is caused by “maldigestion and malabsorption of food.”
The pancreas is a deep organ located in the abdomen. One of its primary functions is called an exocrine, meaning that it plays a role in “the digestion of food, by secreting various digestive enzymes,” explains Professor Pascal Crane. In this sense, “the function of the pancreas may appear during digestion” and thus lead in particular to steatorrhea, due to “poor digestion and malabsorption of food and especially fats (fats)”.
What diseases can it reveal? “Chronic pancreatitis, which is often associated with excessive alcohol intake or, in rare cases, pancreatic cancer.”
Often, massive and rapid weight loss
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency can also lead to weight loss, which is caused by diarrhea. In the case of adenocarcinoma (cancer) of the head of the pancreas, the French National Society of Gastroenterology (SNFGE) notes that weight loss, “often significant and rapid,” can be observed in 50 to 80% of cases (1).
Abdominal pain, sometimes diffuse
Prof. Crane explains that steatorrhea can be “preceded by or sometimes accompanied by abdominal pain. It can mean damage to the pancreas without necessarily showing an obvious abnormality”, which is why it should be monitored. Especially when it comes to:
“[acute] pain in the upper abdomen extending to the back,” a hallmark of acute pancreatitis (2). Some cases may develop into chronic pancreatitis.
“[Semi] chronic or acute pain,” signs of chronic pancreatitis (3);
“Sharp, persistent pain behind the stomach or in the back that is not relieved when lying down,” which could be particularly indicative of a tumor in the pancreas (4).
High blood sugar is a sign of diabetes
Professor Crane adds that the second major function of the pancreas is called endocrine, meaning that it plays a role in “regulating the level of glucose in the blood (blood sugar) by specifically secreting insulin”. This is why “high blood sugar” can also be a sign of pancreatic dysfunction. “This same sign can also be asymptomatic or detected when there are symptoms that are completely different from those of the pancreas,” he explains.
What diseases can it reveal? “Diabetes, a metabolic disease but whose causes and mechanisms are not only the pancreas: most often, disturbances in the functioning of the pancreas are secondary to the depletion of hormonal secretions.”
Jaundice detects pancreatic cancer
Jaundice, also known as jaundice, is a yellow discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes. If it is characteristic of diseases of the liver and bile ducts, then it may also be a symptom of the disease, and sometimes pancreatic cancer. As the National Cancer Institute (Inca) explains, jaundice is “a sign that the bile produced by the liver is no longer flowing normally” due to a blockage caused by a tumor (4).
Note: In 2011, the number of new cases of pancreatic cancer in France was 9,000. “It is a severe disease, the frequency of which is increasing,” emphasizes Professor Crane. In addition, “pancreatic cancers are highly polymorphic: symptoms can be very similar to those of exocrine, endocrine, or other disorders.”