What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

The pancreas is a 6-inch, fish-shaped gland that is wedged between the stomach and the spine. The organ is charged with producing insulin and other hormones (via the endocrine glands), as well as enzyme juices (via the exocrine glands) that help breakdown food during digestion.

The organ distributes their products to the rest of the gastrointestinal tract via ducts. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer depend on which gland or duct is affected. Although cancer can develop in the glandular cells of the pancreas, the ducts tend to be the most susceptible area.

Warning-bell checklist for pancreatic cancer:

  • Back pain
  • Jaundice
  • Fat in stool or pale colored stool
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don't occur until the disease is advanced. When signs and symptoms do appear, they may include: upper abdominal pain that may radiate to your back, yellowing of your skin and on the whites of your eyes (jaundice), loss of appetite, weight loss, depression, and blood clots.

Dr. Jill K. Onesti, MD
Surgical Oncologist

Pancreas cancer often develops without causing any obvious symptoms. Occasionally, however, it may block the pancreatic duct or the bile duct. This can show up as new itching over your arms and legs or abdomen. This can cause you to turned jaundiced (have yellow skin or eyes) and is often times not painful. You may also notice changes in your stool related to these blockages, such as light clay colored stools that float or appear oily. Any new onset jaundice is a reason to contact your doctor right away.

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
  • Depression
Carla Rohloff
Oncology Nursing Specialist

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer depend on where the cancer is located and how far it has spread. In the early stages, there may be few or no symptoms. As the tumor grows, symptoms may develop. If the tumor prevents bile from flowing, jaundice, in which the skin and the whites of the eyes become yellow, may be a symptom. This may also cause the skin to itch. Pain in the abdomen can also be a symptom. Weight loss, appetite loss, vomiting, and other digestive problems may occur if the cancer interferes with the digestive system. If the cancer affects organs, such as the lungs and liver, additional symptoms are possible.

Pancreatic cancer is often difficult to detect in the early stages because distinct symptoms usually do not occur until the cancer is advanced. The early symptoms of pancreatic cancer can resemble those of other diseases. With the pancreas located behind other organs including the stomach, liver, small intestine, gallbladder, bile ducts and spleen, symptoms usually occur only when the cancer has grown large enough to impact these surrounding organs' function.

Initial symptoms may include pain in the upper abdomen moving into the back, and unexplained weight loss. As most pancreatic tumors start in the head of the pancreas where digestive juices are produced, these tumors frequently block a bile duct, producing jaundice, and itchiness of the skin. (However, these symptoms more commonly reflect viral hepatitis or gallstones). Other signs of pancreatic cancer may include loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, fat malabsorption, and depression. Any of these symptoms should be examined by a physician.

Dr. Deborah M. Axelrod, MD
Surgical Oncologist

Is it pancreatic cancer—or something much less serious? Find out why the symptoms of pancreatic cancer are sometimes mistaken for a more common ailment by watching this video featuring cancer specialist Deborah Axelrod, M.D.

Pancreatic cancer is known as a "silent disease" because identifiable symptoms are not usually present in the early stages of the disease. Many symptoms of pancreatic cancer are mild at first, so patients often ignore them. Due in large part to the position of the pancreas deep in the abdomen, a pancreatic tumor can grow for years before causing pressure, pain, or other signs of illness. This can make it difficult for a patient or doctor to recognize a problem.

There are several symptoms commonly associated with pancreatic cancer. However, other medical conditions can cause these, or similar symptoms. Having one or any combination of these symptoms does not always mean you have pancreatic cancer. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should consult your doctor to discuss possible diagnoses:

• Jaundice
• Upper Abdominal Pain
• Digestive Difficulties
• Unexplained Weight Loss
• Ascites
• Sudden Onset Diabetes

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are vague and, in fact, there may be no symptoms at all. The most common symptom is abdominal pain with weight loss. Other symptoms may be diarrhea, loss of appetite, new-onset diabetes or hyperglycemia when there was no history of elevated blood glucose. In the absence of abdominal pain, many people present with new onset jaundice (yellow skin and eyes). However, many of these symptoms may be present with benign diseases as well. 

The contents of this website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Nor does the contents of this website constitute the establishment of a physician patient or therapeutic relationship. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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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.