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Pancreatic cancer symptoms

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This page has information on the symptoms of pancreatic cancer. You can find the following information

 

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Pancreatic cancer symptoms

The most common types of cancer of the pancreas are exocrine tumours. The symptoms can be quite vague. And they vary depending on where the cancer is in your pancreas – in the head, body or tail. Some of the most common symptoms include pain in the stomach area or back, jaundice and weight loss.

About half of patients have jaundice when they first go to their doctor. Symptoms of jaundice can include yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, severe itching, darkened urine, and pale coloured stools (bowel motions).

Other symptoms

There are other symptoms that you can have with cancer of the pancreas. These include diabetes, itching, sickness, change in bowel motions, fever and shivering, indigestion and blood clots. 

There is an uncommon group of pancreatic tumours called endocrine pancreatic tumours or neuroendocrine tumours. About a third of these produce hormones. The symptoms are different for each type, depending on the hormone the tumour makes.
 

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Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

The most common types of cancer of the pancreas are exocrine tumours. The symptoms can be quite vague. And they vary depending on where the cancer is in your pancreas - in the head, body or tail. Common symptoms include

Pain in the stomach area or back

About 7 out of 10 people 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. Your abdomen may also be tender or painful if your liver, pancreas or gallbladder are inflamed or enlarged. Some people may only have back pain. This is often felt in the middle of the back, and is persistent.

Jaundice

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 will 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 instead. 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.

Weight loss

People diagnosed with pancreatic cancer may 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.

There are other symptoms that you can have with cancer of the pancreas. You may have any of these symptoms from before you are diagnosed. Or you may develop them later. Of course, you may not have all of them. Not everyone has every symptom. These non specific symptoms of pancreatic cancer include

Diabetes

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 is passed out of the body in the urine and takes a great deal of water with it. This causes

  • Thirst
  • Passing a lot of urine
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss and hunger 

Itching

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

Sickness

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, which can make you sick. You may also be sick if the cancer, or inflammation around it, is beginning to block the duodenum. This will stop digested food from passing through to the small bowel. Due to sickness, you may have a loss of appetite which can result in weight loss.

Bowel changes

If your pancreatic duct is blocked, you may 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. So this may be a cause of weight loss.

Fever and shivering

You may 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

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

Blood clots

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. Common symptoms of a blood clot include

  • Pain, redness and swelling around the area where the clot is
  • The area around the clot may feel warm to touch

If you have these symptoms, you must see your doctor straight away.

 

Symptoms from 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. They are

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 stools (faeces), 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 great deal 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 do not produce hormones and so do not cause specific symptoms. As these tumours get larger or spread they may 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.

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Updated: 22 May 2014