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A man talking to his doctor about his pancreatic cancer symptoms.

Pancreatic cancer originates in the pancreas, a vital organ located deep within the abdominal cavity between the stomach and the spine. The pancreas has a dual role: As part of the digestive system, it produces enzymes to aid the digestion of food; as part of the endocrine system, it produces the hormone insulin to help control blood sugar levels.

The symptoms of early-stage pancreatic cancer are often vague and easy to overlook. Because many patients do not realize something is wrong until their cancer reaches an advanced stage, it is important for everyone to learn to recognize the possible signs, pay close attention to their body and discuss any unusual changes with a physician.

Early warning signs of pancreatic cancer

In many cases, the first noticeable sign of pancreatic cancer is jaundice, which causes a yellowing of the eyes and skin. Jaundice results from a buildup of bilirubin, a yellow-brown substance produced by the liver. Normally, the liver releases a liquid containing bilirubin (bile) through the common bile duct into the intestines, where the bile helps break down fats and then leaves the body in the stool. However, if a pancreatic tumor blocks the common bile duct, bile will not reach the intestines and bilirubin will build up in the body.

It is important to note that jaundice can have many causes other than a pancreatic tumor, such as gallstones, hepatitis and other liver and bile duct conditions, all of which are much more common than cancer.

Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer

In addition to jaundice, other symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Digestive issues – If bile cannot reach the intestines, symptoms such as indigestion, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting may develop.
  • New-onset diabetes – Pancreatic cancer may destroy the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, which can lead to high blood sugar levels or diabetes.
  • Unintended weight loss – A pancreatic tumor may cause a feeling of fullness or a loss of appetite, both of which can lead to weight loss.
  • Unexplained fatigue – Like many other types of cancer, pancreatic cancer often causes overwhelming tiredness or weakness.

What does pancreatic cancer feel like?

Pain in the abdomen or back is common with pancreatic cancer. A tumor that forms in the body or tail of the pancreas can grow fairly large and begin to press on nearby organs, which can cause abdominal pain. Additionally, if the tumor pressures nerves near the pancreas, back pain may develop.

What does pancreatic cancer look like?

In addition to yellowing of the eyes and skin, jaundice can cause:

  • Dark-colored urine – As the bilirubin level rises in the blood, the urine may become brownish in color.
  • Light-colored stools – Normally, bilirubin gives the stools their brownish color. However, if bile cannot reach the intestines because the bile duct is blocked by a pancreatic tumor, the stools may appear grayish or lighter in color.
  • Greasy stools – If bile cannot reach the intestines to help break down fats, the stools may take on an oily consistency.

Symptoms of advanced pancreatic cancer

The symptoms of late-stage pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Hepatomegaly – Sometimes, pancreatic cancer causes liver enlargement, resulting in a mass that can be felt in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen.
  • Gallbladder enlargement – If the common bile duct is blocked by a pancreatic tumor, bile may build up in the gallbladder, causing it to swell.
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – With pancreatic cancer, a blood clot may form in a deep vein near the pancreas, such as the splenic vein or portal vein, which can block the flow of blood through the vein.

Symptoms of metastatic pancreatic cancer

Metastatic pancreatic cancer occurs when the primary tumor spreads to other areas of the body. The symptoms can vary depending on the part of the body affected, such as the:

  • Liver – Pancreatic cancer that has spread to the liver can cause abdominal swelling and a gradual loss of liver function.
  • Bile ducts – Pancreatic cancer that has spread to a bile duct can cause a lump that may be felt just under the ribcage.
  • Bones – Pancreatic cancer that has spread to the bones may cause bone pain and frequent bone fractures.

Pancreatic cancer symptoms in women vs. men

Pancreatic cancer symptoms do not differ significantly between women and men. The warning signs are generally the same regardless of the patient’s gender. With that said, the symptoms can vary from person to person, and not everyone with pancreatic cancer will experience all the same symptoms.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about pancreatic cancer signs and symptoms

The following FAQs-related articles provide additional information about the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer:

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

If you would like to discuss your pancreatic cancer symptoms with a specialist, turn to the multispecialty team in Moffitt’s renowned Gastrointestinal Oncology Program. We offer the latest diagnostic and treatment options in a single, convenient setting.

To request an appointment at Moffitt, call 1-888-663-3488  or submit a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.