When cancer of the pancreas first develops, it rarely causes any symptoms. This means you may not notice anything unusual until the cancer has become relatively advanced.
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be caused by a variety of conditions, so it can be difficult to diagnose.
It is important to remember that many of these symptoms are not usually caused by cancer. For example, nausea and fever are very common symptoms of a number of other illnesses.
If you are at all concerned, contact your GP. If your symptoms develop suddenly or are causing you particular pain or discomfort, contact your GP immediately.
Some of the most common early symptoms are outlined below.
Pancreatic cancer can cause pain and discomfort in your upper abdomen (tummy), which sometimes spreads to your back. At first the pain may come and go, but as the cancer becomes larger and more advanced you may find pain is more constant and lasts for longer.
The pain is often worse when you are lying down or eating. This tends to affect people whose tumour has formed in either the body or tail of the pancreas.
Many types of cancer can cause you to lose weight or lose your appetite because the cancerous cells deprive your healthy cells of nutrients they need.
Pancreatic cancer is more likely to cause weight loss than some other cancers because the pancreas is normally responsible for helping the digestive system digest food, by releasing enzymes into your intestines (bowel).
If your pancreas is unable to release these enzymes because of the tumour, then your body will find it harder to digest food, particularly high-fat foods. This can cause you to lose weight, and you may also become malnourished (where your body does not have enough of the right substances from food to keep it working properly - see the Health A-Z topic on Malnutrition for more information).
Jaundice is a condition with these symptoms:
- yellowed skin and whites of your eyes
- dark yellow or orange urine
- pale stools
- itchy skin
Jaundice can be caused by a number of other conditions, such as gallstones or hepatitis, and is rarely caused by cancer. But it may develop if cancer forms in the head of your pancreas.
This is because a tumour in the head of the pancreas can block the bile duct, which is responsible for carrying bile (a fluid that helps the body digest food) from the liver to the intestine. Bile contains a yellow chemical called bilibrubin, which needs to be removed from the body by the liver.
If the bile duct is blocked, the bilibrubin will build up, causing the symptoms of jaundice.
The pancreas is responsible for helping produce insulin. If your body does not have insulin, it cannot move sugar (glucose) out of the blood and into your cells. The symptoms of diabetes include:
- excessive thirst
- passing more urine than usual
- weight loss
You may develop diabetes as a result of your pancreatic cancer, because it can produce chemicals that interfere with the normal effect of insulin.
Nausea and vomiting
You will normally only experience nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting when cancer of the pancreas is advanced. This is because when the tumour grows larger it can sometimes block part of the digestive tract, which is very close to the pancreas.
Fever and shivering
You may become feverish and shivery if your pancreas becomes inflamed (swollen) as a result of the tumour.