Pancreatic Cancer Program
Pancreatic Cancer Awareness
SymptomsEarly cancer of the pancreas often doesn't cause symptoms. When the cancer grows larger, you may notice one or more of these common symptoms:
The head of the pancreas is located close to the common bile duct and small bowel (duodenum) so tumors located in the head of the pancreas may grow and block these structures. Bile duct blockage can lead to jaundice in 70-85% of patients with tumors in the head of the pancreas. Symptoms of jaundice include:
- yellowing of the skin
- yellowing of the whites of the eyes
- light-colored (clay colored) bowel movements
- dark-colored urine
Nausea, Vomiting, Weight Loss
Stomach emptying can be delayed when the small bowel is compressed. This causes a feeling of fullness and contributes to symptoms of nausea and vomiting. These symptoms are initially present in 35-45% of patients with pancreatic cancer. Patients sometimes have a loss of appetite and nausea that leads to weight loss.
In advanced disease, up to 5% of patients have tumors that cause complete blockage of the small bowel. In this case, surgery may be done to bypass the blockage and improve digestion.
In more advanced disease, patients can have a feeling of being tired and fatigued. There are many causes of fatigue in patients with cancer.
75-90% of patients with pancreatic cancer have abdominal pain. This may be described as cramping or gas-like pain. Pain may also spread, or radiate, to the back and shoulders.
There is an increased risk for blood clots in patients with pancreatic cancer. A blood clot can be a first symptom of pancreatic cancer. The cancer itself causes changes in the blood that increases the risk for blood clots. Some clots have no symptoms, but swelling, pain and redness can be present in the area of clot.
The onset of diabetes or difficulty in controlling blood sugar levels is also associated with pancreatic cancer. Diabetes may be diagnosed before or after the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Diabetes occurs when the body does not produce enough of the hormone, insulin, or is unable to use insulin properly. Insulin helps your body regulate the blood sugar level, so without it blood sugar levels are often high.
The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes, or juices, into the small intestine. These juices help digest food in the intestines. Patients with pancreatic cancer may not have adequate amounts of these enzymes, and food isn't digested normally. This is called pancreatic insufficiency.
Symptoms include diarrhea and cramping often after eating. This happens because food passes through the digestive tract not fully digested. As the indigestible food passes through, it pulls water into the intestines, causing diarrhea and cramping.
Source: U-M Comprhensive Cancer Center - Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer.