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Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

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Updated May 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Pancreatic cancer symptoms often do not appear until the disease is in an advanced stage, thus making early detection difficult. When they do appear, they can be vague and non-specific, such as stomach pain and weight loss. Additionally, a patient's symptoms will vary depending on the location of the cancer within the pancreas.

What Is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is a gland about 6 inches long that is shaped like a thin pear lying on its side. The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine. It cannot be felt during a physical exam exam and is located behind other organs like the stomach, liver, spleen, gallbladder, and small intestine.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Yellowing of the Skin and Eyes. Jaundice, a painless condition marked by the yellowing of the skin and eyes, commonly occurs in people pancreatic cancer. It occurs when an increased level of bilirubin is in the blood. This can occur when a tumor completely or partially blocks bile ducts of the liver, slowing the flow of bile.

Abdominal Pain. Abdominal pain is s common symptom. It usually occurs on the upper abdomen and may even radiate to the back. Abdominal pain may worsen when lying down or 3 to 4 hours after eating.

Unintended Weight Loss. While losing weight without trying may be welcomed by many, it can indicate something is wrong. It is one of the first symptoms of pancreatic cancer a person usually notices, along with abdominal pain. (Weight loss is common in many types of cancer and other benign conditions.)

Nausea/Vomiting. Another vague symptom that is common among many other conditions, as well as pancreatic cancer. Non-specific symptoms, like nausea, often result in a delay in a diagnosis.

Loss of Appetite. Appetite loss is a symptom of hundreds of diseases and conditions, including pancreatic cancer. It can signal something severe or even be related to something as small as a stomach virus. When symptoms are vague like this, medical tests are necessary to make an accurate diagnosis.

Itchy Skin. Itchy skin is a less common symptom experienced by people with pancreatic cancer. Again, it's vague, but when coupled with another symptom like abdominal pain or jaundice, it can be significant in making a more accurate and timely diagnosis. Unfortunately, when someone with undiagnosed pancreatic cancer is experiencing itchy skin, it is often misdiagnosed as a dermatological condition.

Unexpected Onset of Diabetes. In some cases, pancreatic cancer may impede the pancreas' ability to produce insulin, resulting in diabetes. It is important to remember that most people develop diabetes because of reasons unrelated to pancreatic cancer.

Changes in Stool and Urine Color. Urine may become much darker, while stools lose their brown color, becoming a pale, clay color. This is often due to the bile duct being blocked. Stools can also have a odd, strong smell. Unsure of what your symptoms may be? Try the Symptom Checker to see what your symptoms could mean.

What to Do If You Have Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer, see your doctor. Even if they are not related to pancreatic cancer in the end, they do warrant a medical evaluation. More than likely, you do not have pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is considered to be a rare disease.

Is Pancreatic Cancer Screening Available?

Pancreatic cancer screening programs are available, but are not recommended for everyone. It is a rare disease, so there is no need to screen the general population. However, some people with a family history of pancreatic cancer and certain genetic syndromes are at a heightened risk of pancreatic cancer. Those at an increased risk may benefit from specialized screening.

Many major research hospitals maintain familial pancreatic cancer registries that study the causes of pancreatic cancer. Registrants are those with a family history of pancreatic cancer or those who suffer from a genetic syndrome that increases their risk of developing the disease. Participants may qualify for annual screenings and other medically relevant benefits. This, however, does not replace routine medical care with your primary care physician. To learn more about pancreatic cancer registries in your area, please see this list of registries.
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