Signs and Symptoms

Pancreatic cancer is sometimes called a 'silent disease' because early pancreatic cancer often does not present symptoms until the disease is well advanced and has metastasized (spread) to surrounding organs.

The earliest signs of pancreatic cancer are often so vague and mild that they are overlooked. The most common early symptoms typically include loss of appetite with mild weight loss and a vague, mild discomfort in the upper abdomen or occasionally in the middle-back area (the pancreas is positioned in the back of the abdomen directly over the spine). Because there are so many other explanations for this spectrum of symptoms, the earliest signs of pancreatic cancer are often ignored.

Download this symptom management checklist  to monitor/take to your doctor.

However, as the cancer progresses, it causes increasingly more noticeable symptoms, such as yellow jaundice (often with little or no associated pain), which stems from the obstruction of the main duct that drains the liver's bile. As the tumor continues to grow, other digestive problems such as bloating or nausea from obstruction of the stomach are also common.

Although pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect with a physical exam in initial stages, firmness is sometimes felt in the upper middle abdomen late in the course of the disease when it has usually metastasized.

The signs and symptoms can be confusing to not only patients but also to healthcare providers because they vary depending on where the tumor is located in the pancreas (the head, body or tail). When they do appear, they can include:

Pain in the upper abdomen or back - is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer and may worsen when lying down or 3 to 4 hours after eating.

Jaundice - is a condition marked by the yellowing of the skin and eyes and dark urine. It occurs when an increased level of bilirubin is in the blood. This can occur when a tumor is completely or partially blocking the bile duct, slowing the flow of bile.

Loss of appetite - is a symptom of hundreds of diseases and conditions, including pancreatic cancer. It can signal something severe or even be related to something as small as a stomach virus. When symptoms are vague like this, medical tests are necessary to make an accurate diagnosis.

Weight loss - unintended weight loss is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer and one that is usually one of the first symptoms experienced along with abdominal pain.

Diabetes late in life - pancreatic cancer may impede the pancreas' ability to produce insulin, resulting in diabetes. It is important to note that most people develop diabetes because of reasons unrelated to pancreatic cancer.

Constipation and/or diarrhea - Diarrhea occurs when the nutrients in food are not absorbed properly. When this occurs, stool can become loose, watery, oily and foul-smelling. Constipation is a common problem, particularly in patients taking pain medications. These medications slow the passage of food through the intestines.

Nausea and vomiting - is another vague symptom of pancreatic cancer that is common among many other conditions.

Changes in Stool Colour - stools become pale and clay in color. This is often due to the bile duct being blocked. Stools can also have an odd, strong smell or float if they have too high fat content.

Overall skin itch - is a less common symptom and a vague symptom, but when coupled with another symptom like abdominal pain or jaundice, it can be significant in making a more accurate, timely diagnosis.

Indigestion-like pain and bloating

These symptoms are not sure signs of pancreatic cancer but have been linked to a diagnosis. Anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor so that the doctor can diagnose and treat any problem as early as possible.

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