Pancreatic cancer may go undetected until it's advanced. By the time symptoms occur, diagnosing pancreatic cancer is usually relatively straightforward. Unfortunately, a cure is rarely possible at that point.
(This section focuses on pancreatic adenocarcinoma, which account for more than 95% of pancreatic cancer. Other forms of pancreatic cancer are mentioned at the end.)
Diagnosing pancreatic cancer usually happens when someone comes to the doctor after experiencing weeks or months of symptoms...
Initially, pancreatic cancer tends to be silent and painless as it grows. By the time it's large enough to cause symptoms, pancreatic cancer has generally grown outside the pancreas. At this point, symptoms depend on the cancer's location within the pancreas:
Pancreatic cancer in the body or tail of the pancreas usually causes belly and/or back pain and weight loss.
In general, symptoms appear earlier from cancers in the head of the pancreas, compared to those in the body and tail.
Pancreatic Cancer and Gastrointestinal Symptoms
Because pancreatic cancer grows around important areas of the digestive system, gastrointestinal symptoms often predominate:
Abdominal pain. More than 80% of people with pancreatic cancer eventually experience some abdominal pain as the tumor grows. Pancreatic cancer can cause a dull ache in the upper abdomen radiating to the back. The pain may come and go.
Bloating. Some people with pancreatic cancer have a sense of early fullness with meals (satiety) or an uncomfortable swelling in the abdomen.
Pale-colored stools. If the duct draining bile into the intestine is blocked by pancreatic cancer, the stools may lose their brown color and become pale or clay-colored. Urine may become darker.
Pancreatic Cancer: Whole-Body Symptoms
As it grows and spreads, pancreatic cancer affects the whole body. Such symptoms can include:
Loss of appetite
Elevated blood sugars. Some people with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes as the cancer impairs the pancreas' ability to produce insulin. (However, the vast majority of people with a new diagnosis of diabetes do not have pancreatic cancer.)