The Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the pancreas.

The pancreas is a gland located in the abdomen.

It produces enzymes that help digest food and hormones that help control blood sugar.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect early and usually has few symptoms.

By the time it is diagnosed, it has often spread to other parts of the body.

Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of these. (1)

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. (2)

The Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

The vast majority of pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas, which arise from the cells that line the ducts of the pancreas.

These tumors are often called “pancreatic adenocarcinoma.”

Less common types of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Neuroendocrine tumors: These tumors arise from the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas. (3)
  • Sarcoma pancreas: These tumors arise from the connective tissue cells of the pancreas. (4)
  • Lymphoma pancreas: These tumors arise from the immune system cells of the pancreas. (5)

In most cases, the actual cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown.

Nevertheless, there are several risk factors that have been associated with an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer, including:

  • Age
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Family history
  • Certain genetic conditions
  • Pancreatitis: This is a chronic inflammation of the pancreas.
  • Obesity

Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

Among the many types of cancer that can affect the human body, pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult to detect in its early stages.

This is because the pancreas is located deep within the abdomen, making it hard to see or feel any tumors that may be growing there.

Furthermore, the pancreas does not produce any symptoms until cancer has progressed to a late stage.

By the time symptoms do appear, the cancer has often spread to other organs, making it very difficult to treat.

However, there are still some early warning signs that can indicate pancreatic cancer.

These include:

  • Abdominal pain that spreads to the back (The pain may be worse when lying down or after eating)
  • Unexplained weight loss (losing weight without trying to)
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Change in stool color
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy skin
  • New onset diabetes
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Painful swelling in the leg or arm (this is due to a blood clot)
  • Stomach bloating
  • Fever

If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis.

While some of these symptoms may be caused by other conditions, only a medical professional can determine if you have pancreatic cancer. (6, 7)

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?

Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to diagnose in its early stages because it often doesn’t cause any signs.

By the time symptoms do develop, the cancer has usually already spread to different parts of the body.

For this reason, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage, when treatment is less likely to be successful.

There are several tests that can be used to diagnose pancreatic cancer, including imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans and biopsy procedures.

A biopsy involves taking a small sample of tissue from the pancreas and examining it under a microscope.

This can be done using a needle biopsy, in which a thin needle is inserted into the pancreas, or by surgically removing a part of the pancreas.

If pancreatic cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, there is a much better chance of successful treatment.

However, due to the nature of the disease, it is often not possible to diagnose it until it has already progressed.

What is the most effective treatment for pancreatic cancer?

The most effective treatment for pancreatic cancer largely depends on the stage of the disease.

In early-stage disease, surgery may be the best option.

The goal of surgery is to remove the tumor and any surrounding tissue that may be cancerous.

In some cases, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be recommended before or after surgery to help kill any remaining cancer cells.

For patients with more advanced diseases, chemotherapy is often the primary treatment.

Radiation therapy may also be used in some cases to help control symptoms and improve quality of life.

Clinical trials are ongoing to evaluate new and emerging treatments for pancreatic cancer, including targeted therapies and immunotherapy.

With advances in treatment, more patients are able to experience long-term remission. (8, 9)

Summary

Pancreatic cancer is a serious illness that can have a profound impact on both the sufferer and their loved ones.

When pancreatic cancer develops, it can cause a range of symptoms, depending on the location and size of the tumor.

Common symptoms include pain in the abdomen or back, weight loss, jaundice, and fatigue.

Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to diagnose in its early stages, and by the time symptoms appear, the disease is often advanced and difficult to treat.

As a result, pancreatic cancer has a very high mortality rate.

If you are concerned that you or someone you know may have pancreatic cancer, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis.

More resources: The Signs of Pancreatitis