What is the role of the pancreas, do you need one and what are symptoms something is wrong?

The pancreas is tucked away behind and below the stomach. (Picture: Getty)

The pancreas. You’ve most likely heard of it but you might not know exactly what it does.

Because it’s tucked away, many of us aren’t really aware of the purpose of the organ unless something goes wrong with it.

Sex and the City star Willie Garson’s cause of death was confirmed to be from pancreatic cancer in September 2021 – he was 57.

Pancreatic cancer is the fifth biggest cancer killer in the UK with 9,000 deaths every year, according to Pancreatic Cancer UK.

If you’d like to know more about your pancreas, whether we can live without one and early warning signs to be aware of, read on to find out all you need to know.

Where is your pancreas?

The pancreas is a six-inch-long gland located in your abdomen near your liver and part of the small intestine.

It’s nestled slightly below your stomach and in front of your spine.

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas produces digestive juices and insulin, as well as other hormones to do with digestion.

The pancreas’ role is split into two:

  • Endocrine system: The pancreas secretes hormones, including the blood sugar-regulating hormones, insulin and glucagon.
  • Exocrine system: It also secretes enzymes into your digestive tract through a duct into your duodenum (the first part of the small intestine). These enzymes help us to digest fats, carbohydrates and proteins.

What problems affect the pancreas?

The two most common inflictions that impact the pancreas are pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreatic tissue.

Acute pancreatitis can also be caused by gallstones blocking the main pancreatic duct, or by drinking too much alcohol.

It might only last for a few days for some, but it can also become a chronic condition.  

The NHS states that symptoms of acute pancreatitis include suddenly getting severe pain in the centre of your abdomen, feeling or being sick, diarrhoea and a high temperature of 38 degrees or more.

Sex and the City’s Willie Garson passed away from pancreatic cancer, aged 57, in September 2021. (Picture: James Devaney/GC Images)

Pancreatic cancer is caused by cancerous cells in the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer may be difficult to detect at first because the pancreas is tucked away behind several large organs that may make it difficult for your doctor to pinpoint a tumour.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • The whites of your eyes or your skin turn yellow, you may also have itchy skin, and darker urine than normal
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of energy
  • A high temperature, or feeling hot or shivery
  • Other symptoms can affect your digestion, such as: feeling or being sick
  • Diarrhoea or constipation, or other changes to your bowel movements
  • Pain at the top part of your tummy and your back, which may feel worse when you are eating or lying down and better when you lean forward

Can you live without your pancreas?

You can live without a pancreas.

If you have your it removed, you’ll have to adjust to the lack of natural insulin production.

Without a pancreas, you will develop diabetes because of the lack of insulin in your body. As a result, you’ll need to take one or more of the following steps:

  • Take an enzyme replacement pill
  • Get injections of insulin
  • Follow a diabetic diet

How to look after your pancreas

Some things are unavoidable, but there are steps you can take to help reduce the likelihood of pancreatitis and other problems with your pancreas.

Drink less alcohol (or give it up altogether) – By drinking less, you can reduce your risk for pancreatitis.

Eat a low-fat diet – Gallstones, a leading cause of acute pancreatitis, can develop when too much cholesterol accumulates in your bile, a fluid that helps break down fats. To reduce your risk for gallstones, eat a low-fat diet that includes whole grains and a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Healthy, organic foods can help reduce the risk of pancreatitis (Picture: Getty)

Watch your weight – People who are overweight are more likely to develop gallstones, which leads to a greater risk for acute pancreatitis.

Avoid crash and extreme diets – The caveat to losing weight is to do it healthily and sensibly. When you go into crash-diet mode, prompting quick weight loss, your liver ramps up cholesterol production in response, which increases your risk for gallstones.

Don’t smoke – A review of existing studies published in the September 2019 issue of the journal of Pancreatology found that adults who smoked were more likely to develop acute or chronic pancreatitis.

MORE : World Diabetes Day: What are the symptoms of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes?

MORE : Blocking cholesterol storage ‘could stop growth of pancreatic tumours’, study claims

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