Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is often called a silent disease because many times there are no signs or symptoms until the cancer is in an advanced stage. Even when there are early signs and symptoms, they may be vague and misattributed to another disease. The signs and symptoms also may be confusing to patients and healthcare providers because they vary depending on where the tumor is located in the pancreas (the head, body, or tail).
Many other illnesses can cause these signs and symptoms, but it is important to take them seriously and see your doctor as soon as possible.
Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. Symptoms that may occur with jaundice are itching (which may be severe), dark urine and light or clay-colored stool. Jaundice occurs when bilirubin stains the skin. Bilirubin is a dark-yellow brown substance made in the liver that travels down the bile duct and into the small intestine. When the bile duct is blocked by a tumor or when a tumor is located in the head of the pancreas near the bile duct, the bile is prevented from reaching the intestines. The bile then accumulates in tissues, blood and the skin, leading to jaundice.
Skin can start to itch or turn yellow when bilirubin builds up in the skin.
This common sign of advanced pancreatic cancer occurs when the tumor presses on organs and nerves around the pancreas. The pain may be constant or intermittent and can be worse after eating or when lying down.
Digestive Problems or Pain
People with pancreatic cancer may lose weight, have little or no appetite or may suffer from malnutrition. When pancreatic enzymes cannot be released into the intestine, digesting food— especially high-fat foods—may be difficult. Over time, significant weight loss and malnutrition may result.
Nausea or Vomiting
If the tumor blocks the upper part of the small intestine (the duodenum), nausea and vomiting may result.
Similar to back pain, abdominal pain is a common sign of advanced pancreatic cancer which occurs when the tumor presses on organs and nerves around the pancreas.
Pancreatic cancer can cause blood to clot more easily and can be the first sign of the tumor. These clots occur in the veins and can block blood flow. They can occur in the legs (deep vein thrombosis), lung (pulmonary embolism), or organs such as the pancreas itself or liver (portal vein thrombosis).
An inflammation of the pancreas called pancreatitis can be a sign of pancreatic cancer when pancreatitis is chronic or when it appears for the first time and is not related to either drinking alcohol or gallstones.
Developing diabetes mellitus (Type II Diabetes), especially after the age of 50, can be a sign of pancreatic cancer. The majority of patients with diabetes, however, will not develop pancreatic cancer. Long-term diabetes is also a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.