The pancreas is a small gland in the abdomen, only six inches long, with a flattened pear shape. The liver, gallbladder, spleen, stomach, and small intestine surround the pancreas, which assists in digestion and the regulation of the blood sugar. In rare instances — just 56,000 cases annually in the U.S. — this little organ can develop cancer. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can treat pancreatic cancer, and as with all serious illness, catching it early improves the prognosis.
Loss of appetite is an early warning sign for many conditions, and pancreatic cancer is no different. In addition to not feeling hungry, people with pancreatic cancer may feel full after only a few bites of food. If the loss of appetite lasts and there is no other explanation, see a doctor.
Extreme lethargy is another symptom of pancreatic cancer. However, fatigue has a variety of causes, and pancreatic cancer is only one of them. Anytime a part of the body is not working properly, it can cause other parts of the body to overcompensate, creating fatigue. If a person experiences other potential symptoms of pancreatic cancer combined with fatigue, they should seek medical advice.
Abdominal pain can be caused by an injury or lying in bed the wrong way too many nights in a row. The pain associated with pancreatic cancer may occur anywhere in the abdominal region but is often focused at the mid-portion of the abdomen. It may be vague at first, but as cancer progresses, the pain can begin to radiate to the back.
Sometimes pancreatic cancer prevents digestive enzymes from reaching the intestines due to blockages from tumors. This makes it difficult for the body to digest foods high in fat. The result is odd-smelling bowel movements pale in color, with a tendency to float. Blood in the intestines can also create dark stool.
When your body does not have enough pancreatic enzymes, it may allow fat in the food you eat to pass through the body as waste, without adequate digestion. The pancreas not functioning as it is meant to can explain the unexpected weight loss many people with pancreatic cancer experience. However, there are numerous other reasons a person might lose weight without trying.
Extensive research shows a good percentage of people with pancreatic cancer had diabetes for about one to three years before showing visible symptoms of cancer. In those over the age of 50, new-onset symptoms of diabetes may be an early sign of pancreatic cancer. While cancer does not lead to or occur due to diabetes directly, it is possible to experience symptoms of diabetes at the early stages of the condition, in part because the pancreas is responsible for producing insulin.
When tumors begin to grow in the pancreas, they can cause blockages. Any size of growth can cause a blockage in the head of the pancreas that can result in a build-up of bile, leading to jaundice. This yellowing of the skin can range from a tint that is hardly detectable to a distinctive hue. The yellowing is also visible in the eyes and nails.
Itchy skin can be an early warning sign of pancreatic cancer, regardless of severity. Chemicals released by the bile that builds up from pancreatic cancer can cause the symptom, which can become quite intense. Of course, there can be many different causes of itchy skin, including switching laundry detergent or an allergic reaction to a particular food.
When the bile duct becomes enlarged, it creates a build-up of bile that causes jaundice. This build-up can also cause an enlarged gallbladder. Often, this is the reason an individual first seeks medical advice for what is later diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. Imaging tests can show doctors the state of the gallbladder. A physician can also sometimes identify this abnormality through probing during a regular physical exam. An enlarged gallbladder is not always related to or caused by pancreatic cancer.
One of the strangest symptoms of pancreatic cancer is a change in taste. This symptom especially affects the taste of tobacco and alcoholic beverages. People with pancreatic cancer who have smoked for twenty years can sometimes no longer stand to be in the same room with other individuals who are smoking, much less take a draw from a cigarette. Changes in the taste of food can also occur. The reason for this symptom continues to mystify researchers, but it can play a role in weight loss symptoms, as well.
Any cancer diagnosis—pancreatic or otherwise—can have a massive impact on a person's mental health. The psychological weight of undergoing treatment, managing outcomes, and living with an unsure future can be overwhelming for many people. In these circumstances, it is extremely common to develop depression and anxiety. For some individuals, symptoms may come and go. For others, the symptoms of these conditions may persist for a long period.
The location of the pancreas means that any cancerous growths can easily press on the surrounding organs. One of the more typical examples of this occurs when tumors press on the far end of the stomach. This pressure can partially block the flow of food, leading to a range of gastric issues, including nausea and vomiting. Occasionally, the cancer may lead to hormone production that also negatively impacts the gastrointestinal organs.
A notable symptom of pancreatic cancer is excessive fluid retention in the abdomen, known medically as ascites. This fluid build-up can cause the belly to expand and swell, triggering other issues. Indigestion, constipation, loss of appetite, and difficulty breathing are all common in these cases.
Ascites is a significant sign in pancreatic cancer because it predominantly occurs after the cancer has metastasized or spread.
Many pancreatic diseases, including cancer, can affect the skin. One example of this occurs when a person has a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. This growth releases hormones that trigger a chain of events that ultimately causes rashes. The rashes may appear anywhere on the body, but they are most prevalent on the face, stomach, and legs.
Sometimes, hyperpigmentation also develops, forming patches of dark and discolored skin.
Though uncommon, cancer can cause a fever even when there is no infection for the body to fight. These "tumor fevers" are persistent, potentially lasting for many days. They can be low- or high-grade and may exist alongside other symptoms. Depending on the severity of the fever, the body's temperature may rise enough to trigger night sweats.
Depending on where in the pancreas tumors develop, they can even cause vague symptoms like back pain. Some people with pancreatic cancer describe the pain as originating in the middle abdomen and then spreading into the back. Others simply feel generalized back pain, similar to muscle aches. The pain may become worse when lying down and improve while leaning forward.
Occasionally, the earliest sign that a person has pancreatic cancer is the formation of a blood clot in a large vein, typically within the leg. When a clot develops in the leg in this manner, it is called deep vein thrombosis. Coexisting symptoms include redness, swelling, warmth, and pain in the affected region.
Blood clots can be extremely dangerous, as they may break apart and travel to other organs with potentially life-threatening repercussions. Pulmonary embolisms—blood clots in the lungs—are an example of this.
A large study found that many people showed symptoms of pancreatic cancer as early as a year before they received a diagnosis. Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, was among these newly recognized symptoms. Some experts attribute the dysphagia to hormonal changes following tumor growth. Many view it as a side effect developing in response to other gastrointestinal symptoms. Beyond being an early indicator, various cancer treatments can contribute to dysphagia.
Currently, no blood test can directly identify and diagnose pancreatic cancer. However, the condition can produce some unusual results during other blood tests, indicating the need to investigate further. When a person has cancer, their bodies often produce tumor markers that end up in the blood. At higher levels, blood tests can detect these markers.
Because of this, some researchers are aiming to create tests that can diagnose pancreatic cancer early in its progression.
Cancer is hard on the body. As it develops, affecting various systems, the entire body may have to work harder to operate, resulting in a much faster heart rate. Fevers can cause elevated heart rates, as can dehydration and thyroid issues.
The cancer may also be contributing to tiredness and fatigue, meaning even simple actions may get the heart pumping faster than usual. Some experts even believe that these heart rate changes could predict mortality in cancer cases.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.