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Organ Lessons: The Pancreas

It's time to take some organ lessons, but not the musical kind. I'm going to teach you about your internal organs, starting with the pancreas.

November is National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, devoted to educating people about the disease that took the life of Patrick Swayze earlier this year. If you're like most people, you probably don't know exactly what the pancreas does, so read on to learn more.

  • Where is the pancreas?
    This organ is located behind the liver and the stomach.
  • What is the pancreas?
    The pancreas is a tapered gland about six inches long.
  • What does the pancreas do?
    The pancreas performs both digestive and endocrine functions. For digestion, the gland secretes enzymes into the small intestine, which help us break down fat, protein, and carbs. In its endocrine duties, the pancreas produces insulin and glucagon, the hormones that lower and raise blood-sugar levels.
  • What can go wrong with the pancreas?
    Diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) occurs when the pancreas does not make enough insulin to regulate blood sugar. Swelling or inflammation of the pancreas is called acute pancreatitis and could be caused by alcohol use or gallbladder problems, among other things. More serious is pancreatic cancer, which is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the US. Though anyone can get pancreatic cancer, some risk factors can increase the chances of getting this disease. Learn how to recognize the symptoms.

If you've never had a pancreatic problem, you probably haven't given this organ much thought. Have you or anyone you know ever suffered from any pancreatic ailments?

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