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Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Pancreatic cancer often goes undetected until it's advanced and difficult to treat. In the vast majority of cases, symptoms only develop after pancreatic cancer has grown and begun to spread. 

Because more than 95% of pancreatic cancer is the adenocarcinoma type, we'll describe those symptoms first, followed by symptoms of rare forms of pancreatic cancer.

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Pancreatic Cancer Overview

In 2014, it's estimated over 46,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. About one in 76 people in the U.S. will develop the disease. Pancreatic cancer affects equal numbers of men and women, almost always after the age of 45. Cancer of the pancreas barely makes the top 10 most common cancers in the U.S. However, pancreatic cancer's tendency to spread silently before diagnosis makes it the fourth deadliest cancer diagnosis with more than 39,000 people expected to die of the...

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Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms: Location Matters

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 head of the pancreas tends to cause symptoms such as weight loss, jaundice (yellow skin), dark urine, light stool color, itching, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, back pain, and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck.
  • 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.
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • 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:

  • Weight loss
  • Malaise
  • 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.)

Pancreatic Cancer and Skin Symptoms

Jaundice: As pancreatic cancer blocks the duct that releases bile into the intestine (common bile duct), the ingredients of bile build up in the blood. This turns the skin and the eyes yellow, a condition called jaundice. The same blockage causes dark urine and light-colored stools.

Itching: People with pancreatic cancer sometimes report itching all over. Blockage of the bile ducts is often responsible.

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