Early symptoms of pancreatic cancer

 The early symptoms of pancreatic cancer are difficult to detect because the pancreas is buried deep inside the body. Therefore, doctors cannot see or feel an early tumor during a routine physical examination. In fact, patients tend to feel symptoms until after the cancer has metastasized to other organs.

Pancreatic cancer symptoms include:

·         Pain in the upper abdomen that may radiate to the back.

·         Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes).

·         Appetite loss.

·         Loss of weight.

·         Depression.

·         Blood clots causing painful swelling of an arm or leg.

·         Stomach bloating.

·         Particularly foul-smelling, usually-colored floating stool.

·         Weakness.

·         Nausea.

·         Vomiting.

·         Chills.

·         Fever.

More specifically, the symptoms of pancreatic cancer depend on whether the tumor is exocrine or endocrine.

Exocrine pancreatic cancer symptoms


·         Dark urine.

·         Light-colored stool.

·         Itchy skin.

·         Abdominal or back pain.

·         Loss of appetite and/or weight.

·         Gallbladder enlargement.

·         Blood clots.

·         Fatty tissue anomalies.

·         Diabetes.

Digestive problems

·         Pale, greasy stool.

·         Nausea and vomiting.

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor


Tumors that make Gastrin, a hormone that tells the stomach to produce more acid, which can lead to Zollinger-Ellison syndrome.

·         Tiredness.

·         Shortness of breath.

·         Black and tarry stool.


Tumors that make glucagon, a hormone that raises blood sugar levels.

·         Feeling thirsty and hungry.

·         Having to urinate often.


Tumors that make insulin, a hormone that lowers blood sugar levels.

·         Weakness.

·         Confusion.

·         Sweating.

·         Rapid heartbeat.


Tumors that make somatostatin, a hormone that helps regulate other hormones.

·         Belly pain.

·         Nausea.

·         Poor appetite.

·         jaundice


Tumors that make vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP).

·         Diarrhea.

·         Low levels of acid in the stomach.


Tumors that make pancreatic polypeptide (PP).

·         Belly pain.

·         Enlarged liver.

Carcinoid tumors

Tumors that make serotonin.

·         Damaged heart valves.

·         Shortness of breath.

·         Weakness.

·         Heart murmur.


Men and people older than 45 years of age have an increased risk of being diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. Additionally, individuals with the following risk factors are more likely to experience the early symptoms of pancreatic cancer:

·         African-American ethnicity.

·         Obesity.

·         Diabetes.

·         Smoking.

·         Family history

-        Two or more first-degree relatives such as parents, brothers, sisters, or children are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

-        Three or more close relatives such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, or cousins who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and with one relative diagnosed before age 50.

·         Hereditary conditions

-        Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS).

-        Familial malignant melanoma and pancreatic cancer (FAMM-PC). 

-        Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) syndrome.

-        Lynch syndrome.

-        Li-Fraumeni syndrome (LFS).

-        Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).

·         Chronic or hereditary pancreatitis.

·         Chemicals

-        Pesticides.

-        Benzene.

-        Certain dyes.

-        Petrochemicals.

·         Helicobacter pylori bacteria.

·         Hepatitis B infection.

·         Cirrhosis.

Pancreatic cancer can be diagnosed with a variety of tests that range from simple – checking the eyes to see if they are yellow – to complex – endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography; or, introducing hospital equipment supplies such as an endoscope into the small intestine through the mouth and stomach, followed by a catheter inserted through the endoscope and into the bile and pancreatic ducts.

Diagnostic tests also include:

·         Blood tests.

·         CT scan.

·         PET scan.

·         MRI.

·         Ultrasound (abdominal and endoscopic).

·         Cholangiopancreatography.

·         Biopsy.

·         Molecular testing.

The results of those and other tests can be used to stage and categorize the pancreatic tumor.

Stages of pancreatic cancer


Cancer in situ; it has not yet spread beyond the top layers of the pancreatic duct where it began.


A 2cm or smaller tumor in the pancreas that has not invaded lymph nodes or other body parts.


A larger than 2cm tumor in the pancreas that has not invaded lymph nodes or other body parts.


The cancer has spread beyond the pancreas but not to regional arteries, blood vessels, nerves or veins, or to lymph nodes or other body parts.


A tumor of any size has spread to lymph nodes but not to regional arteries, veins, blood vessels or nerves, or other body parts.


The cancer has spread to regional arteries, veins, blood vessels or nerves and/or lymph nodes but not to other body parts.


Any tumor that has invaded other, distant body parts.


Pancreatic cancer categories

·         Resectable

The tumor may be found only in the pancreas or just outside of it, but it has not spread to nearby arteries or veins and can be surgically removed.

·         Borderline resectable

May be surgically removed with negative margins – no visible cancer cells left behind – after it has been shrunk by chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

·         Locally advanced

Although it has not spread to distant sites, it cannot be removed because it has invaded regional major blood vessels.

·         Metastatic

The cancer has grown outside the pancreas and into the liver, distant areas of the abdomen, and other organs.


Staging the tumor can help determine survival rates.

Pancreatic cancer 5-year observed survival rates


Exocrine pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors treated with surgery


















In addition to the aforementioned chemotherapy and radiation therapy, pancreatic cancer treatment includes these options:

·         Surgery

-        Laparoscopy.

-        Surgery to remove the tumor.

·         Targeted therapy.

Related: Early symptoms of liver cancer