Pancreatic Cancer: Signs and Symptoms

pancreatic cancer

Early-stage pancreatic cancers often do not cause any signs or symptoms. Pancreatic cancers are often very large or have already spread outside the pancreas by the time they cause symptoms.

Having one or more of the symptoms listed below does not mean that you have pancreatic cancer. In fact, many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by other conditions. However, if you have any of these symptoms, it is important to have a doctor examine you to find out the cause of your symptoms and receive treatment if necessary.

Jaundice and related symptoms

Jaundice manifests through yellowish skin and eyes. It occurs as one of the first symptoms in most people with pancreatic cancer (and almost all people with ampullary cancer).

Jaundice is caused by a build-up of bilirubin, a dark green substance produced in the liver. Normally, the liver releases a fluid called bile that contains bilirubin. Bile passes through the common bile duct into the intestines, where it helps break down fats. It eventually leaves the body in the stool. When the common bile duct becomes blocked, bile cannot reach the intestines and the amount of bilirubin in the body builds up.

Cancers that start in the head of the pancreas are near the common bile duct. These cancers can press on the duct and cause jaundice when they are still quite small, sometimes resulting in these tumors being found at an early stage. But cancers that start either in the body or the tail of the pancreas do not put pressure on the duct until they are spread throughout the organ. By that time, the cancer has often spread outside the pancreas as well.

When pancreatic cancer spreads, it commonly passes first to the liver. This can also cause jaundice.

In addition to yellowing of the eyes and skin, other signs of jaundice include:

  • Pale or greasy stools: Bilirubin normally helps to give stools its brown color. If the bile duct is blocked, the stool may appear gray or light in color. Also, if bile and pancreatic enzymes cannot reach the intestines to help break down fats, the stool can become greasy and can float in the toilet.
  • Dark urine: Sometimes urine with a darker color is the first sign of jaundice. As bilirubin levels increase in the blood, the urine turns a brown color.
  • Itchy skin: When bilirubin builds up on the skin, it turns yellow and begins to itch.

Pancreatic cancer is not the most common cause of jaundice. Other causes, such as gallstones, hepatitis, and other diseases of the liver and bile duct are much more common causes.

Abdominal or back pain

El dolor de abdomen (vientre) o de espalda es común en el cáncer de páncreas. Los cánceres que se originan en el cuerpo o la cola del páncreas pueden crecer significativamente y pueden comenzar a comprimir otros órganos cercanos causando dolor. Puede que el cáncer además se propague a los nervios cercanos al páncreas, lo cual a menudo causa dolor de espalda. El dolor en el abdomen o en la espalda es bastante común y con más frecuencia es causado por otros padecimientos distintos al cáncer pancreático.

Weight loss and poor appetite

It is very common for people with pancreatic cancer to lose weight without trying. Often these people have little or no appetite.

Enlarged gallbladder or liver

If the cancer blocks the bile duct, bile can build up in the gallbladder, causing it to enlarge. Sometimes a doctor can feel this enlargement during a physical exam (such as a large lump under the right side of the rib). It can also be seen in imaging studies.

Sometimes pancreatic cancer can also cause an increase in the size of the liver, especially if the cancer has spread there. The doctor may be able to figure this out by feeling the edge of the liver under the right rib, or the enlarged liver may be seen on imaging tests.

Nausea and vomiting

If the cancer presses on the distal end of the stomach, this can partially block it, making it difficult for food to pass. This can cause nausea, vomiting, and pain that tends to intensify after eating.


In rare cases, pancreatic cancer destroys insulin-producing cells, causing diabetes (high blood sugar). Symptoms can include feeling thirsty and hungry, as well as having to urinate frequently. More often, cancer can lead to small changes in blood sugar levels that do not cause symptoms of diabetes, but can still be detected by blood tests.

Blood clots

Sometimes the first sign that a person has pancreatic cancer is a blood clot in a large vein, often in the leg. This is called deep phlebothrombosis (DVT). Symptoms can include pain, swelling, redness, and warmth in the affected leg. Sometimes a clot fragment can break off and travel to the lungs, making it difficult to breathe and causing chest pain. A blood clot in the lungs is called a pulmonary embolism (PE).

Even so, having a blood clot does not usually mean that you have cancer. Most blood clots are due to other causes.

Written by J.Andrew


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