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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

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.

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Fatigue

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.

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Abdominal Pain

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.

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Changes in Bowel Movements

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.

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Weight Loss

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.

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Symptoms of Diabetes

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.

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Jaundice

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.

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Itchy Skin

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.

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Enlarged Gallbladder

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.

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Changes in Taste

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.

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Depression and Anxiety

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.

Depressed woman. simpson33 / Getty Images

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Nausea and Vomiting

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.

Young woman feeling sick Olga Rolenko / Getty Images

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Ascites

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.

Senior man with stomach pain seb_ra / Getty Images

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Skin Rashes or Abnormal Pigmentation

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.

Scratching chest Kinga Krzeminska / Getty Images

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Persistent Fever or Night Sweats

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.

Young woman feeling symptoms of an illness Brothers91 / Getty Images

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Unexplained Back Pain

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.

A man feeling back pain in bed at home. A mature guy looking unhappy, stressed and feeling sick in his bedroom during the morning Dean Mitchell / Getty Images

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Blood Clots

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.

Varicose vein laser surgery recovery and prevention, Compression Stockings Thigh Albina Gavrilovic / Getty Images

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Difficulty Swallowing

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.

Woman holds her throat, sore throat Remains / Getty Images

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Abnormal Blood Test Results

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.

blood test tube Kubra Cavus / Getty Images

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Rapid Heart Rate

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.

EKG hospital medical equipment vital statistics eyecrave productions / Getty Images

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Urinary issues

Pancreatic cancer can have a surprising negative impact on your urinary system. Tumors in the pancreas can press on the nearby urinary tract, leading to various urinary symptoms. You might find yourself needing to urinate more frequently, especially during the night, or experiencing difficulties when trying to initiate urination. While these symptoms can sometimes be attributed to other factors like urinary tract infections, they can also signal pancreatic cancer. If you notice any unusual changes in your urinary patterns, consult a healthcare professional promptly for a comprehensive evaluation to rule out potential causes, such as pancreatic cancer.

Healthcare Concept Image, Asian woman holding her pee, health care concept of UTI urinary tract infection; urinary incontinence; overactive bladder symptoms, isolated background

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Neuropathy

The nervous system can also be affected by pancreatic cancer. Peripheral neuropathy is a condition where individuals may experience numbness, tingling, or a "pins and needles" sensation in their extremities, particularly in the hands and feet. While neuropathy can have multiple potential causes, when ongoing and coupled with other symptoms, it may signal an underlying issue such as pancreatic cancer. It's essential not to disregard these sensations especially if they persist, if they're frequent and consult a healthcare professional for a thorough evaluation. Early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and intervention can make a significant difference in the management and treatment of this cancer or other similarly serious conditions.

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Cognitive changes

In some cases, pancreatic cancer can lead to cognitive changes, including difficulty concentrating, memory loss, and mood swings. These changes can be subtle and may be to caused by other factors, but if they persist or worsen, it's essential to consult a doctor for a comprehensive assessment of potential causes, including potential pancreatic cancer.

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Muscle weakness

Pancreatic cancer can lead to muscle weakness or muscle wasting, which may affect various parts of the body. If you notice unexplained muscle weakness, especially when combined with other symptoms noted here, it's important to consult a healthcare professional for evaluation.

Asian young male physiotherapist helping patient with lifting dumbbells exercises in office.

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Vision problems in pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer often exhibits a range of symptoms that can be subtle and easily misattributed to other conditions. While it's not common, some individuals with pancreatic cancer may experience vision problems. Which might even be an early warning sign. Vision issues can be unsettling and should not be ignored. One more specific vision-related symptom that individuals with pancreatic cancer might notice is blurred vision. Objects and surroundings may appear less sharp and clear than usual. Blurred vision can be particularly disconcerting as it affects daily tasks such as reading, driving, or recognizing faces.

young female with eyeglasses looking at camera squinting eyes, having bad sight and feeling discomfort, poor eyesight concept

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Disclaimer

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.