Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas — an organ in your abdomen that lies horizontally behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help manage your blood sugar.
Pancreatic cancer typically spreads rapidly to nearby organs. It is seldom detected in its early stages. But for people with pancreatic cysts or a family history of pancreatic cancer, some screening steps might help detect a problem early. One sign of pancreatic cancer is diabetes, especially when it occurs with weight loss, jaundice or pain in the upper abdomen that spreads to the back.
Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of these.
5 Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Since pancreatic cancer usually does not cause recognizable symptoms in its early stages, the disease is typically not diagnosed until it has spread beyond the pancreas itself. This is one of the main reasons for the generally poor survival rates. Exceptions to this are the functioning PanNETs, where over-production of various active hormones can give rise to symptoms (which depend on the type of hormone).
- Bearing in mind that the disease is rarely diagnosed before the age of 40, common symptoms of pancreatic adenocarcinoma occurring before diagnosis include:Pain in the upper abdomen or back, often spreading from around the stomach to the back. The location of the pain can indicate the part of the pancreas where a tumor is located. The pain may be worse at night and may increase over time to become severe and unremitting. It may be slightly relieved by bending forward. In the UK, about half of new cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed following a visit to a hospital emergency department for pain or jaundice. In up to two-thirds of people abdominal pain is the main symptom, for 46% of the total accompanied by jaundice, with 13% having jaundice without pain.
- Jaundice, a yellow tint to the whites of the eyes or skin, with or without pain, and possibly in combination with darkened urine. This results when a cancer in the head of the pancreas obstructs the common bile duct as it runs through the pancreas.
- Unexplained weight loss, either from loss of appetite, or loss of exocrine function resulting in poor digestion.
- The tumor may compress neighboring organs, disrupting digestive processes and making it difficult for the stomach to empty, which may cause nausea and a feeling of fullness. The undigested fat leads to foul-smelling, fatty feces that are difficult to flush away. Constipation is common.
- At least 50% of people with pancreatic adenocarcinoma have diabetes at the time of diagnosis. While long-standing diabetes is a known risk factor for pancreatic cancer (see Risk factors), the cancer can itself cause diabetes, in which case recent onset of diabetes could be considered an early sign of the disease. People over 50 who develop diabetes have eight times the usual risk of developing pancreatic adenocarcinoma within three years, after which the relative risk declines.
- Trousseau's syndrome, in which blood clots form spontaneously in the portal blood vessels, the deep veins of the extremities, or the superficial veins anywhere on the body, may be associated with pancreatic cancer, and is found in about 10% of cases.
- Clinical depression has been reported in association with pancreatic cancer in some 10–20% of cases, and can be a hindrance to optimal management. The depression sometimes appears before the diagnosis of cancer, suggesting that it may be brought on by the biology of the disease.
Other common manifestations of the disease include: weakness and tiring easily; dry mouth; sleep problems; and a palpable abdominal mass.
Symptoms of spread (metastasis)
Cross section of a human liver, at autopsy, showing multiple large pale tumor deposits, that are secondary tumors derived from pancreatic cancer.
The spread of pancreatic cancer to other organs (metastasis) may also cause symptoms. Typically, pancreatic adenocarcinoma first spreads to nearby lymph nodes, and later to the liver or to the peritoneal cavity, large intestine or lungs. It is uncommon for it to spread to the bones or brain.
Cancers in the pancreas may also be secondary cancers that have spread from other parts of the body. This is uncommon, found in only about 2% of cases of pancreatic cancer. Kidney cancer is by far the most common cancer to spread to the pancreas, followed by colorectal cancer, and then cancers of the skin, breast, and lung. Surgery may be performed on the pancreas in such cases, whether in hope of a cure or to alleviate symptoms.