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Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Find out about possible symptoms of pancreatic cancer and when to see your doctor.

The symptoms vary depending on where the cancer is in the pancreas – in the head, body or tail. The most common type of pancreatic cancer starts in the cells that produce digestive juices and is called an exocrine tumour.

Symptoms can be vague but see your GP if you are at all worried. They won't think you are bothering them unnecessarily.

Common symptoms

About 7 out of 10 people (70%) with pancreatic cancer first go to their doctors because they have pain. Pain is more common in cancers of the body and tail of the pancreas. People describe it as a dull pain that feels as if it is boring into you. It can begin in the stomach area and spread around to the back. The pain is worse when you lie down and is better if you sit forward. It can be worse after meals. 

Some people may only have back pain. This is often felt in the middle of the back, and is persistent.

About half of patients have jaundice when they first go to their doctors. Most of these people will have pain as well. Around 1 in 10 people (10%) have painless jaundice. 

Jaundice is yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. The urine is darker than normal and bowel motions may be lighter in colour. Jaundice is more common with cancer of the head of the pancreas because the tumour blocks the bile duct. This tube carries bile into the duodenum. If it is blocked the bile ends up in your bloodstream. It is passed out in your urine rather than through the bowel.

Bile contains a lot of yellow pigments so it turns the skin yellow. Jaundice is a common symptom of many liver and gallbladder diseases. It is often easier to spot in the whites of the eyes rather than the skin.

People diagnosed with pancreatic cancer might have recently lost a lot of weight (at least 10% of their total body weight) for no apparent reason. This symptom is more common in cancers of the head of the pancreas.

Other symptoms

Cancer of the pancreas can cause other symptoms. These might happen before the cancer is diagnosed or might happen later. Not everyone has every symptom.

These non specific symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

Some people diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas are found to be newly diabetic. Some have been diagnosed with diabetes within the previous year. If you have diabetes you are not producing enough insulin. So there is too much sugar in your blood. The sugar passes out of the body in the urine and takes some water with it.

This causes:
  • thirst
  • passing a lot of urine
  • weakness
  • weight loss and hunger

You might have itching if you have bad jaundice. The increased bile salts in the bloodstream cause itching in the skin.

You may feel or be sick because you have jaundice or an inflamed pancreas. Both these conditions upset the delicate chemical balance of the body.

You might also be sick if the cancer, or inflammation around it, starts to block food from passing out of the stomach and into the first part of the bowel. Due to sickness, you might have a loss of appetite which can cause weight loss.

If your pancreatic duct blocks, you might develop a symptom called steatorrhoea. This means fatty stools (poo). You may pass frequent, large bowel motions that are pale coloured and smelly, and are difficult to flush away. These bowel disturbances can mean that you are not absorbing your food properly. This can also cause weight loss.

You might have a temperature from time to time because you have jaundice or an inflamed pancreas. When your temperature is high you may feel cold and shivery.

Indigestion causes heartburn, bloating and sickness. It is a common problem in the general population, and for most people it isn't a sign of cancer.

If it is persistent or isn't getting better with medicines, you should go back to see your doctor.

Occasionally, pancreatic cancer is linked to blood clots. They may form in the deep veins in the legs for example, or in smaller veins anywhere on the body. Sometimes the clots will disappear and then develop somewhere else in the body.

See your doctor straight away if you have these symptoms :

  • pain, redness and swelling around the area where the clot is
  • the area around the clot might feel warm to touch

Symptoms of endocrine pancreatic tumours

Endocrine pancreatic tumours are uncommon. They are also called neuroendocrine tumours. About a third of these pancreatic tumours produce hormones (functional tumours). The symptoms are different for each type, depending on the hormone the tumour produces.

Insulinomas

Insulinomas produce too much insulin, causing weakness, loss of energy, dizziness and drowsiness.

Gastrinomas

Gastrinomas produce too much gastrin, causing peptic ulcers in the stomach or duodenum. This leads to severe pain, bleeding causing black, tarry faeces (poo), and diarrhoea.

Somatostatinomas

Somatostatinomas produce too much of a hormone called somatostatin. This causes gallstones, diabetes and diarrhoea with bulky, fatty and smelly stools (steatorrhoea).

VIPomas

VIPomas produce too much of a hormone called VIP. This causes a lot of watery diarrhoea, flushing of the face, and high blood pressure.

Glucagonomas

Glucagonomas produce too much of a hormone called glucagon. This causes a very specific type of skin rash (redness, ulceration and scabbing), anaemia, mouth ulcers and diarrhoea.

About two thirds of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours don't produce hormones and so don't cause specific symptoms. As these tumours get larger or spread they might cause symptoms such as pain, a lump in the abdomen or jaundice.

More information

The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful. So it is important that you go to your GP as soon as possible if you notice worrying symptoms.

Information and help

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