When are digestive problems a symptom of pancreatic cancer?

Jill Onesti, MD
Surgical Oncology
Digestive problems can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. The pancreas has two main functions: to make hormones that help control your blood sugar levels, and to produce enzymes that help digest your food. These enzymes are produced throughout the pancreas and are collected in a central duct. This duct empties into your small intestine, where the enzymes meet the foods that you just ate. Pancreatic cancer can cause digestive problems when it blocks the pancreatic duct, which means the normal digestive enzymes cannot be released into the small intestine. This can cause abdominal pain accompanied by loose, oily stools that tend to float on the surface of the toilet water.
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Digestive difficulties including indigestion, nausea, weight loss, a poor appetite, and diarrhea, can arise as a result of pressure from a pancreatic cyst or tumor on the stomach or the small intestine that causes a block in the digestive tract. When a tumor grows, it can wrap around the far end of the stomach, causing a partial block. This can cause nausea, vomiting, and pain which may worsen after eating.

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