symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 53,670 new cases of pancreatic cancer in the United States in 2017 and 43,090 deaths. Pancreatic cancer accounts for 3 percent of the of all cancers and 7 percent of cancer mortality.

This particular cancer has claimed the lives of numerous famous names, including Steve Jobs and Patrick Swayze.

Pancreatic cancer often goes undetected until it is in an advanced stage when is too difficult to treat. Unfortunately, most of the time, symptoms only develop after the cancer has spread.

Signs and Symptoms

Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are already at a late stage by the time the disease is detected, and by that point, the prognosis could mean death for some people.

While there are early signs, these often go undetected because they could mean anything. But if you find you are experiencing two or more early warning signs, call your doctor and ask for testing.

Some of the early warning signs of pancreatic cancer are listed below.

Diabetes That Suddenly Comes On

Diabetes is either a symptom of pancreatic cancer or a risk factor. People have had diabetes for a long time have a higher chance of developing this type of cancer.

In individuals who have had diabetes for shorter periods, the research is unclear as to whether diabetes contributed to cancer or whether pre-cancer cells caused diabetes.

New onset diabetes may be any early symptom of pancreatic cancer in people over 50, this according to a 2009 report in the journal, The Lancet Oncology. A sudden change in blood sugar in people with diabetes that was previously well-controlled is also a sign of pancreatic cancer.


Jaundice, the yellowing of skin and eyes, is common in people with pancreatic cancer. It is due to excess bilirubin – a bile compound – in the blood.

Tumors at the top of the pancreas case the bile duct to narrow and block the flow of bile from the gallbladder to the small intestine. That blockage is what causes the buildup of bilirubin.

Signs of jaundice are:

  • Skin irritation and itchiness
  • Dark urine
  • Light or clay color stools

A surgical procedure called a biliary bypass can clear the blocked bile duct. Another treatment option for jaundice involves insertion of a stent to open and keep the bile duct open.

Abnormal Bloating

Bloating in pancreatic cancer is the result of the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, a condition called ascites. That extra fluid is what causes the abdominal bloating.

In addition to bloating, ascites can cause other symptoms may include:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Abdominal pain and pressure
  • Weight gain
  • Digestive issues, including nausea, ingestion, and constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Ankle swelling

The most effective treatment for ascites is a treatment of the tumor with chemotherapy or surgery. Diuretics (water pill) can help to slow down the buildup because they cause the kidneys to expel more water into the urine.

In very severe cases, the fluid is drained by inserting a needle into the abdominal cavity and slowly draining the fluid. This treatment helps temporarily, but the excess fluid will return.

Enlarged Gallbladder

If a tumor is blocking the bile duct and causing build up to the gallbladder, the gallbladder can become enlarged. A doctor can feel this enlargement as a large lump on the right side of the rib cage. This can also be seen on an imaging test, such as at CT scan.

Pancreatic cancer can also cause the liver to become enlarged. But this usually more frequent if the cancer has spread to the liver.

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Pain results when tumors invade the nerves. With pancreatic cancer, pain is often felt in the stomach or the back.

This type of pain worsens with eating, laying down and bending forward. Pain is more common when the cancer is in the main body or the bottom part of the pancreas.

Your abdomen may be tender or painful if your liver, gallbladder or pancreases are enlarged and/or inflamed.


Cancer fatigue is not just simply being tired. It is extreme exhaustion on an almost daily basis.

Sometimes, cancer fatigue comes on suddenly and for no reason. This type of fatigue makes you weak, causes sleep problems and makes it difficult to concentrate.

Fatigue it is also caused by cancer treatments. It may get worse during treatment and may go on long after treatment has completed.

Your doctor can help you to find the best ways to manage fatigue. But he or she cannot help if you do not disclose your fatigue struggles and how they are affecting you daily.

Digestive Problems

Digestive issues associated with pancreatic cancer include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Changes to taste

The cause of nausea and vomiting is usually a blocked duodenum. The duodenum is the upper part of the small intestine.

Weight loss results from loss of appetite and malabsorption of fats due to a reduced supply of pancreatic enzymes. Changes to taste have also been noted in people with pancreatic cancer.

Unusual Stools

Pancreatic tumors keep digestive enzymes from reaching the intestine resulting in the ability to digest fatty foods. Stools become loose, smelly and float because of this excessive fat.

Bleeding in the upper intestines may cause dark, tar-like stools.

Unusual stools are usually the first signs of pancreatic cancer, but this is also the most overlooked symptom.

What to Do If You Experience These Symptoms?

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often mistaken for more common and less severe conditions. Therefore, it is important to document all symptoms and report them to your doctor.

If your doctor thinks your concerns are real and concerning, he or she will order imaging tests and blood work.

It is possible you may have to convince your doctor that your concerns are legitimate. If he or she is not willing to listen, find a doctor who will, but most doctors will do what the patient asks.

Plenty of people still living productive lives due to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer at an early stage. Don’t push your health concerns aside and don’t let anyone else do that either, including medical professionals.