Pancreatic cancer - Symptoms 

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer 

When cancer of the pancreas first develops, it rarely causes any symptoms.

This means you may not notice anything unusual until the cancer has become relatively advanced.

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be caused by a variety of other conditions, so it can be difficult to diagnose.

It is important to remember that many of these symptoms are not usually caused by cancer. For example, nausea and fever are common symptoms of a number of other illnesses.

If you are concerned, your symptoms develop suddenly or an area is causing you particular pain or discomfort, contact your GP.

Some of the most common early symptoms are outlined below.

Pain

Pancreatic cancer can cause pain and discomfort in your upper abdomen (tummy), which sometimes spreads to your back.

At first the pain may come and go, but as the cancer becomes larger and more advanced you may find pain is more constant and lasts for longer.

The pain is often worse when you are lying down or eating. This tends to affect people whose tumour has formed in either the body or tail of the pancreas.

Weight loss

Many types of cancer can cause you to lose weight or lose your appetite, 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 is normally responsible for helping the digestive system digest food by releasing enzymes into your intestines (bowel).

If your pancreas is unable to release these enzymes because of the tumour, then your body will find it harder to digest food, particularly high-fat foods. This can cause you to lose weight and you may also become malnourished, which happens when your body does not get enough nutrients from food to keep it working properly.

Jaundice

Jaundice is a condition with these symptoms:

  • yellowed skin and whites of your eyes
  • dark yellow or orange urine
  • pale stools
  • itchy skin

Jaundice can be caused by a number of other conditions such as gallstones or hepatitis, and is rarely caused by cancer. But it may develop if cancer forms in the head of your pancreas.

This is because a tumour in the head of the pancreas can block the bile duct, which is responsible for carrying bile (a fluid that helps the body digest food) from the liver to the intestine.

Bile contains a yellow chemical called bilibrubin, which needs to be removed from the body by the liver.

If the bile duct is blocked, the bilibrubin will build up, causing the symptoms of jaundice.

Diabetes

The pancreas is responsible for helping produce insulin.

If your body does not have insulin, it cannot move sugar (glucose) out of the blood and into your cells.

The symptoms of diabetes include:

  • excessive thirst
  • passing more urine than usual
  • weakness
  • weight loss

You may develop diabetes as a result of your pancreatic cancer, as it can produce chemicals that interfere with the normal effect of insulin.

Nausea and vomiting

You will normally only experience nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting when cancer of the pancreas is advanced.

This is because a larger tumour can sometimes block part of the digestive tract, which is very close to the pancreas.

Fever and shivering

You may become feverish and shivery if your pancreas becomes inflamed (swollen) as a result of the tumour.

Page last reviewed: 03/07/2012

Next review due: 03/07/2014

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