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Pancreatic Cancer Is Often Diagnosed at a Late Stage: Know the Signs and Symptoms

Pancreatic cancer usually shows no symptoms in its early stages. But screening tests exist.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Pancreatic cancer shows few if any symptoms in its early stages, making diagnosis difficult. Symptoms generally occur only once the cancer has moved into its later stages or spread to other parts of the body, and late detection reduces the effectiveness of treatments and the chances of survival. Complicating the problem is that many of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer could point to other health issues. Symptoms also vary depending on where the cancer starts in the pancreas. Genetic tests may indicate whether you have a predisposition to developing certain kinds of cancers based on your family genome. Whether you should get such tests — and the limits of screening for diseases such as pancreatic cancer — are subjects for you and your doctor to discuss. Here are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer you should know.


Genetic Screening


If you have a family history of cancer — or unusual types of cancer — you may be at higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer, the American Cancer Society says.  The society advises consulting a genetic counselor, nurse or doctor to discuss the risks and benefits of genetic testing before you get it.  If such tests reveal a genetic predisposition to cancer, you can ask your doctor if you should undergo early screening specifically for pancreatic cancer.



Doctor in white medical lab coat points ballpoint pen on anatomical model of human or animal pancreas

Jaundice — or yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes — is one of the first symptoms of pancreatic cancer (as well as an indicator of other health issues, such as liver problems or gallstones).  Jaundice could be a sign of cancer in the head of the pancreas, near the common bile duct. But cancer in the body or tail of the pancreas may not result in jaundice until later. Jaundice may be accompanied by dark-colored urine, yellowish or greasy stools or itchy skin.


Unintended Weight Loss

weight loss

Pancreatic cancer can reduce appetite and lead to weight loss. The cancer can also impinge on the stomach, causing nausea and vomiting. "Tumor-induced weight loss, also known as cancer cachexia, is a complex problem. It affects the way the body uses calories and protein.  Cancer cachexia can cause the body to burn more calories than usual, break down muscle protein and decrease appetite. If a person is consuming regular meals and snacks but is losing weight, they may be experiencing cancer cachexia," says the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.


Abdominal Pain


Tumors that begin in the body or tail of the pancreas can grow large enough to push against other internal organs, resulting in abdominal pain. They can also cause abdominal swelling or bloating. The cancer may also affect nerves around the pancreas, and that can cause back pain. Back pain alone may indicate health issues other than pancreatic cancer.


Other Symptoms


Pancreatic cancer may cause fatigue, lead to or worsen diabetes, result in blood clots or create gastrointestinal problems, among other symptoms. Such symptoms alone or in combination may indicate other health problems. If you are concerned they may be a sign of pancreatic cancer, talk to your doctor.

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