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 exocrine type, we'll describe those symptoms first, followed by symptoms of rare forms of pancreatic cancer.
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. Because of the location of the pancreas in the body, symptoms include:
- Jaundice. As pancreatic cancer blocks 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, light colored stools, and itching.
- Abdominal pain. Pancreatic cancer can cause a dull ache in the upper abdomen radiating to the back. The pain may come and go.
- Back pain.
- Bloating. Some people with pancreatic cancer have a sense of early fullness with meals (satiety) or an uncomfortable swelling in the abdomen.
In general, symptoms appear earlier from cancers in the head of the pancreas, compared to those in the body and tail. Keep in mind that having any or all of these symptoms doesn’t mean a person has pancreatic cancer. There are many other causes for these types of symptoms.
Pancreatic Cancer: Whole-Body Symptoms
As it grows and spreads, pancreatic cancer affects the whole body. Such symptoms can include:
Symptoms of Rare Pancreatic Cancers
Islet cell tumors, also called neuroendocrine tumors, arise from the cells in the pancreas that make hormones. Islet cell tumors account for less than 5% of all pancreas tumors.
Like pancreatic adenocarcinoma, islet cell tumors may cause abdominal pain, weight loss, nausea, and vomiting. Hormones released by an islet cell tumor can also cause symptoms: These include
- Insulinomas (excess insulin): sweating, anxiety, lightheadedness, and fainting from low blood sugar
- Glucagonomas (excess glucagon): diarrhea, excessive thirst or urination, weight loss
- Gastrinomas (excess gastrin): abdominal pain, stomach ulcers that can bleed, reflux, weight loss
- Somatostatinomas (excess somatostatin): diarrhea, weight loss, abdominal pain, foul-smelling fatty stools
- VIPomas (excess vasoactive intestinal peptide): watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, facial flushing
Pancreatic Cancer's Sneaky Symptoms
In a very small number of people with pancreatic cancer, early symptoms might be present that could lead to an earlier diagnosis. Unfortunately, researchers have been unable to identify any predictable pattern.
The rarity and vagueness of these situations point out the difficulty of using early symptoms to catch pancreatic cancer.
That said, symptoms like unintentional weight loss, persistent loss of appetite, yellowing of the eyes or skin, dark urine, or light-colored stools should always prompt concern. Persistent or worsening discomfort, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea are also disconcerting. If you feel something's not right, see your doctor.