Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Knowing the signs allows for earlier intervention

Nauseous woman
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Pancreatic cancer symptoms often do not appear until the disease is in its advanced stages, making early detection difficult. When the first signs do appear, they can be vague and non-specific, such as a stomach pain and sudden weight loss.

Moreover, symptoms can vary significantly from person to person, depending on where the cancer is located in the pancreas.

Understanding the Pancreas

The pancreas is a gland about six inches long that is shaped like a thin pear on its side.

The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, while the middle section is called the body and the narrow end the tail.

The pancreas is cradled behind the stomach in front of the spine. It cannot be felt during a physical exam as it is surrounded by other organs, such as the stomach, liver, spleen, gallbladder, and small intestine.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

There are a number of specific and non-specific symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer. Among them:

  • The yellowing of the eyes and skin, also known as jaundice, is a painless condition caused by the rise of a brown-yellowish substance called bilirubin. Bilirubin, a component of bile, can accumulate when a pancreatic tumor partially or completely blocks bile ducts of the liver.
     
  • Changes in stool and urine color are also indicative of liver dysfunction. Like jaundice, pancreatic tumors can cause the blockage of bile ducts. This can cause urine to become darker (often refer to as “coca cola” colored), while stools become pale and clay-like in appearance. Stools can also have a strong, odd smell.
     
  • Abdominal pain is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer. It usually occurs in the upper abdomen and may radiate to the back. Abdominal pain often worsens three to four hours after eating or when lying down.
     
  • Sudden and unexplained weight loss is almost always an indication that something is medically wrong. It is often one of the first symptoms of pancreatic cancer, as it is with other types of cancer.
     
  • Nausea and vomiting are not uncommon in people with pancreatic cancer, although frequently misdiagnosed in the early stages of the disease.
     
  • Loss of appetite is an equally vague yet telling symptom of pancreatic cancer. It doesn’t suggest cancer on its own but can help direct a diagnosis when other, more specific symptoms are present.
     
  • Itchy skin is another, less common sign of pancreatic cancer. Often mistaken for a dermatological condition, itchy skin is most telling when accompanied with things like jaundice and sudden weight loss.
     
  • The unexpected onset of diabetes can be caused by the pancreas' inability to produce insulin as a result of cancer. While diabetes can be caused by any number of unrelated conditions, things like weight loss and jaundice may point to the liver and pancreas as likely suspects.

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing any of the above-listed symptoms (or find that certain individual symptoms are persistent), make a point of seeing your doctor. Whatever the cause, pancreatic or otherwise, symptoms like these warrant a medical evaluation.

Pancreatic cancer screening programs are recommended for those at higher risk but not for everyone. Pancreatic cancer is still considered a rare disease, so only those with a family history of pancreatic cancer or who have certain genetic syndromes are advised to be tested.

Many major research hospitals maintain familial registries that study the genetic factors and causes of pancreatic cancer. Registrants are qualified for annual screenings and other relevant medical benefits. Such screenings do exclude the need for routine medical care, which should be conducted under the care of your primary care physician.

Source:

Schmidt-Hanson, M.; Berendse, S.; and Hamilton, W. “Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer in Primary Care: A Systematic Review.” Pancreas. July 2016; 45(6):815-818.

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