When is abdominal pain a symptom of pancreatic cancer?

Dr. Jill K. Onesti, MD
Surgical Oncologist

Abdominal pain is a very rare symptom of pancreatic cancer. The tumor may sometimes cause pain by causing inflammation of the pancreas, leading to pancreatitis. This can cause pain in the center of your upper abdomen as well as traveling through to your back. Sometimes the tumor can involve the nerves behind the pancreas, which can cause pain in the center of your back. If you have new and sudden central abdominal pain or back pain, you should discuss these findings with your doctor.

Although abdominal pain is typically from benign causes, pain can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. Pain associated with the pancreas is often felt in the mid-upper abdomen with radiation to the back. But it is important to keep in mind that pancreas cancer is often asymptomatic until late in the disease. That is why it is so hard to diagnose early. 

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Because the early stages of pancreatic cancer do not cause symptoms, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed at a later stage, when treatment options are limited.
During the later stages of pancreatic cancer, the follow symptoms may be present:
  • Dark urine, pale stools and jaundice (skin and whites of eyes have a yellowish tint)
  • Weight loss without dieting
  • Loss of appetite, or feeling of fullness
  • Pain in the upper area of the stomach and back
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in the middle of the back that doesn’t go away

Pancreatic cancer is a lethal and aggressive disease. The disease is often far advanced at the time of initial diagnosis in the vast majority of patients. In many patients, symptoms are vague and subtle and thus account for the delay in seeking medical evaluation.

The classic type of abdominal pain associated with pancreatic cancer is a dull pain, located at the epigastrium (just below the breastbone) and radiates to the mid-back. Occasionally, patients may have right upper quadrant or left upper quadrant abdominal pain. Pain may be worse after eating meals, particularly meals that are fried/fatty/greasy.

Other associated symptoms of pancreatic cancer include unintentional weight loss, the presence of loose, foul-smelling stools that float and are difficult to flush, and/or yellowing of the eyes (icterus) or skin (jaundice). Abdominal pain associated with any of these symptoms should prompt immediate evaluation by a physician.

Abdominal pain is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer. It often radiates to the middle or upper back and worsens after eating or when lying down. Upper abdominal pain commonly occurs with advanced pancreatic cancer. Pain can occur when a tumor, typically originating in the body or the tail of the pancreas, grows to put pressure on surrounding abdominal organs or invades surrounding nerves. Many other conditions can cause upper abdominal pain. If you are experiencing pain in your abdomen, discuss your symptoms carefully with your doctor.


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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.