Pancreatic cancer may not cause any symptoms in the beginning. As the condition progresses, symptoms can include jaundice, pain, unexplained weight loss, and more.
- yellowing of the eyes and skin
- dark urine
- light-colored or greasy stools
- itchy skin
Jaundice occurs due to the buildup of bilirubin, a substance the liver makes. If there is a blockage in the bile duct, the bile that contains bilirubin cannot pass through. This causes the bilirubin to build up.
If the cancer begins at the head of the pancreas, where the common bile duct is located, it may be possible for jaundice to occur in the early stage. However, a tumor starting elsewhere in the pancreas will not press on the duct until it spreads further into the pancreas.
Back pain or abdominal pain
Pancreatic cancer can cause pain in your back or upper abdomen. It may begin in your upper abdomen and then spread to your back.
The pain is typically dull. It may initially come and go. As the cancer progresses, the pain may be more constant.
The pain may worsen after eating or when you lie down.
Pancreatic cancer can cause various digestive problems. If the cancer presses on the far end of the stomach, this can make it difficult for food to pass through easily. This can cause:
You may also experience bloating and feeling full even if you have not eaten much.
Learn about other possible causes of stomach problems.
Weight loss and loss of appetite
This may be due to a loss of appetite, which may happen as a result of digestive problems, or from the cancer itself because it takes up a lot of energy.
Learn about other causes of unexplained weight loss.
Liver and gallbladder enlargement
If you have pancreatic cancer, your liver or gallbladder may become enlarged.
Your gallbladder may become larger if bile builds up as a result of the tumor blocking the bile duct. It may be possible for your doctor to feel this during a physical examination.
If the cancer spreads to the liver, your liver may become larger. In some cases, your doctor might be able to feel this during a physical examination too. They will be able to identify it during an imaging test.
Blood clots may be a symptom of pancreatic cancer.
Around 25–50% of people with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes.
This is because the cancer damages the cells in the pancreas that are responsible for producing insulin. Insulin is a hormone responsible for storing away glucose (sugar) in the body.
Symptoms of diabetes include:
- increased thirst
- increased need to urinate
- extreme tiredness
- unexplained weight loss
What are the early symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may not appear in the early stage of the condition.
When they do occur, some early symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
- occasional dull pain in the back or upper abdomen
Each case of pancreatic cancer is unique. You may experience more or different symptoms first.
What is the location of pancreas pain?
Pain from pancreatic cancer typically begins in the upper abdomen. In the beginning, you may occasionally experience a dull ache around your stomach.
As the condition progresses, this pain may travel to your back.
You may also experience tenderness around your abdomen if the cancer causes enlargement of your gallbladder or liver.
When should I contact a doctor?
It is important to contact a doctor as soon as you experience symptoms of pancreatic cancer.
Because symptoms may not occur in the early stage, it is essential to receive an accurate diagnosis and begin treatment as soon as possible.
Our cancer appointment guide can help you prepare for your appointment.
What are the treatments for pancreatic cancer?
The type of treatment your doctor recommends will depend on the stage of the cancer and whether a surgeon is able to remove some or all of the tumor.
Treatments for pancreatic cancer can include:
Some pancreatic cancer treatments will help alleviate your symptoms. For example, if the tumor shrinks, this may relieve digestive problems caused by the larger tumor pressing on the opening of the bile duct.
Your doctor may also advise on treatments to directly treat some of your symptoms. Your doctor will be able to advise on what your treatment options are so you can make an informed decision about your treatment plan.
Learn more about treatments for pancreatic cancer.
How do doctors diagnose pancreatic cancer?
To diagnose pancreatic cancer, a doctor may begin by doing a physical examination, getting your full medical history, and asking you questions about your symptoms.
They may then do tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.
Tests your doctor may order include:
- imaging tests, such as:
- endoscopic ultrasound
- endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- blood tests
Find out more about how doctors diagnose pancreatic cancer.
As the condition progresses, it can also cause diabetes and enlargement of the gallbladder and liver.
Treating pancreatic cancer may help reduce symptoms such as pain and digestive problems. A doctor may also recommend treatments that specifically target your symptoms.
Contact a doctor as soon as you have concerns about pancreatic cancer. Because symptoms do not always appear in the beginning, it is important to receive an accurate diagnosis as early as possible.