Pancreatic cancer symptoms are often vague when the cancer is in its early stages, and the symptoms can therefore be very difficult to correctly attribute to a specific condition. What’s more, the signs can vary based on the location and type of the cancer. Because many patients do not notice their symptoms until the cancer reaches an advanced stage, it’s important to learn to identify possible signs, pay close attention to your body and be aware of what is normal for you.
Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer
By being aware of the symptoms pancreatic cancer produces, you can learn to recognize them and see a physician as soon as possible. Many individuals assume that pancreatic cancer causes stomach pain, but there are a number of other surprising symptoms that this malignancy can cause.
Some common pancreatic cancer signs and symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis include:
- Jaundice – Most people with pancreatic cancer experience jaundice as one of their first symptoms. It involves the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. Symptoms related to jaundice include dark-colored urine, pale-colored stools and itchy skin.
- Pain – Because pancreatic cancer can put pressure on nearby organs, it can lead to pain in the upper or middle stomach and back.
- Digestive difficulties – This can include indigestion, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.
- New-onset diabetes – Pancreatic cancer destroys cells that make insulin, which in turn can lead to high blood sugar levels or diabetes.
- Unexplained weight loss – Sometimes, pancreatic cancer causes a feeling of fullness or a reduction in appetite. This can lead to unintentional weight loss.
- Weakness or fatigue – As with other types of cancer, pancreatic cancer can cause feelings of extreme tiredness or weakness in the limbs.
Symptoms of advanced pancreatic cancer
In addition to the above symptoms, signs of advanced-stage pancreatic cancer can sometimes include:
- Hepatomegaly – People with pancreatic cancer may experience an enlargement of the liver, which can cause a mass in the right upper quadrant of the stomach. This is even more likely if the cancer has spread to the liver.
- Gallbladder enlargement – When the cancer blocks the bile duct, it can lead to a buildup of bile in the gallbladder.
- An accumulation of fluid in the belly – This can cause the stomach to become swollen and distended.
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – Blood clots may form in large veins, often in one of the legs. DVT may cause swelling, redness, pain or warmth in the affected area.
What is metastatic pancreatic cancer?
Metastatic pancreatic cancer is an advanced form of pancreatic cancer. “Metastatic” means that the cancer has started to spread to other areas of the body. It takes time – several years according to some studies – for metastatic pancreatic cancer to develop, and the symptoms of this condition tend to be more pronounced. Many patients don’t seek diagnosis or treatment until these more noticeable symptoms appear, which is why pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed in later stages.
What are the symptoms of metastatic pancreatic cancer?
The symptoms of metastatic pancreatic cancer will vary depending on where in the body the cancer has spread. For instance:
- Bones – Pancreatic cancer that has spread to the bones may cause bone pain and frequent bone fractures.
- Liver – Pancreatic cancer that has spread to the liver can cause swelling in the stomach area and a gradual loss of liver function.
- Bile ducts – Pancreatic cancer that has spread to the bile ducts can cause a lump underneath the ribcage, which is caused by a buildup of bile in the gallbladder.
These symptoms can also be accompanied by general pancreatic cancer symptoms, such as unintended weight loss, fatigue, jaundice and lower back pain.
"Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to detect at early stage because of the non-specific nature of the symptoms. If you have symptoms that concern you, speak to your health care provider to determine if you are candidate for additional diagnostic testing. Our pancreas team at Moffitt work with multiple providers in the community to aid in the screening, diagnosis, and treatment of pancreatic cancer and pre-cancerous lesions."- Aamir Dam, MD
Risk factors of pancreatic cancer
A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of being diagnosed with a disease, such as pancreatic cancer. While having a risk factor doesn’t mean you will develop pancreatic cancer, it’s important to be aware of the risks so you can discuss them with your doctor. Some of the most common risk factors of pancreatic cancer include:
- Having chronic pancreatitis
- Being overweight or obese
- Having diabetes
- Smoking tobacco products
- Being male
- Having an inherited condition such as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMM) syndrome, familial pancreatitis, Lynch syndrome or Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
Can I be screened for pancreatic cancer?
If you are not showing any signs of pancreatic cancer, there are no recommended forms of pancreatic cancer screening available to you at this time. In general, the goal of cancer screening is to reliably detect cancer before it is causing noticeable symptoms. Before any type of cancer screening is recommended for the general population, the screening method must be deemed safe, accurate and cost-effective. Currently, no methods of pancreatic cancer screening meet these criteria.
Even though pancreatic cancer screening is not currently recommended for the general population, certain people may benefit from regular screening, such as those who have a family history of pancreatic cancer. In addition, patients with hereditary or chronic pancreatitis may also benefit from regular pancreatic cancer screening.
To find out if screening is appropriate for you, talk to your physician about your medical history and pancreatic cancer risk factors. If your physician decides that screening is necessary, the specific type of screening and how often it should be performed will also need to be determined.
Seeking treatment for pancreatic cancer
If you experience one or more pancreatic cancer symptoms, it does not necessarily mean that you have pancreatic cancer. Because there are many other common medical issues that can cause these or similar symptoms, an accurate diagnosis is essential. Therefore, you should follow up promptly with a health care provider who can evaluate your condition and recommend an appropriate treatment.
Medically reviewed by Aamir Dam, MD.
Moffitt Cancer Center’s approach to pancreatic cancer
If you have questions about pancreatic cancer symptoms, you can consult with our outstanding team of experts. In Moffitt Cancer Center’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program, we offer a full range of treatments and supportive care services in a single, convenient location. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online.