Pancreatic cancer - Symptoms 

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer 

In its early stages, pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms.

The pancreas is actually two glands in one, and symptoms depend on which part is affected. This is because:

  • the exocrine pancreas produces digestive enzymes, which break down food so they can be absorbed by your body
  • the endocrine pancreas produces hormones – including insulin, which keeps your blood sugar levels stable

Most cases of pancreatic cancer are in the exocrine pancreas, and the three most common symptoms are:

  • pain in the stomach or back
  • jaundice
  • weight loss

It's important to remember that these symptoms can be caused by many different health conditions and aren't usually the result of cancer. However, you should contact your GP if you're concerned, or if you suddenly develop these symptoms.

Pain in the stomach or back

Pancreatic cancer can cause a dull pain in your upper tummy (abdomen), which may spread to your back.

To begin with, the pain may come and go, but as the tumour becomes larger and more advanced, the pain may be more constant and last longer.

The pain is often worse when you lie down or after you've eaten. You may also have pain or tenderness in your abdomen if your liver, pancreas or gallbladder are enlarged.

Weight loss

Many types of cancer cause weight loss, because the cancerous cells deprive your healthy cells of the nutrients they need.

Pancreatic cancer is more likely to cause weight loss than some other cancers because the pancreas produces digestive enzymes, which help food to be absorbed into your body.

If a tumour disrupts that production, your body will find it harder to digest food, particularly high-fat foods.

This can cause you to lose weight and become malnourished.

Jaundice

Jaundice is caused by a build-up of a yellowish-brown substance called bilirubin in the blood and tissues of the body.

The most obvious sign of jaundice is yellow skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. It also causes your urine to be dark yellow or orange and your stools (faeces) to be pale-coloured.

Bilirubin is a waste product produced by the liver, and passed out of the body through the bile duct and into the intestine.

Jaundice is more often a sign of conditions such as gallstones or hepatitis than it is of cancer.

However, a tumour can sometimes develop in the head of the pancreas and block the bile duct, causing bilirubin to build up in the body.

Diabetes

The pancreas produces the hormone insulin. Without it, the body can't move glucose (sugar) out of the blood and into your cells.

The main symptoms of diabetes include:

  • excessive thirst
  • urinating frequently – particularly at night 
  • extreme tiredness 
  • weight loss and loss of muscle bulk

You may develop diabetes if you have pancreatic cancer, because it can produce chemicals that interfere with the normal effect of insulin.

Other possible symptoms

Other possible symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • itching (if you have jaundice)
  • nausea and vomiting
  • bowel changes
  • fever and shivering
  • indigestion
  • blood clots

Endocrine pancreatic cancer

Endocrine pancreatic tumours, also known as neuroendocrine tumours, are uncommon.

There are a number of different endocrine tumours that cause different symptoms, depending on the hormone the tumour produces.

The Cancer Research UK website has more information about the symptoms of endocrine pancreatic tumours.

Page last reviewed: 10/07/2014

Next review due: 10/07/2016

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