Pancreatic Cancer: What are the Signs and Symptoms?

November 27, 2017

Pancreatic tumors are sometimes discovered during imaging studies — such as an MRI or CT scan — performed to investigate the onset of new symptoms or during evaluation for another condition. They may also be identified during screening for families with a known history of pancreatic cancer.

The pancreas produces fluids that help digest (break down) food, and hormones, such as insulin, to help control blood sugar levels.

The digestive fluids are produced by exocrine pancreas cells, and the hormones are produced by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95 percent of pancreatic cancers begin with the exocrine cells, and are called pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma or other types of carcinomas.

Another type of pancreatic tumor is called a pancreatic endocrine tumor, and these tumors originate from the endocrine cells. Making the distinction between these two kinds of pancreatic cancer is important, as patients with these two tumor types are treated differently.

Pancreatic cancer is a very complex condition to treat, since symptoms are often not apparent until the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

The majority of pancreatic cancer symptoms arise because of the tumor’s location in the pancreas and the relationship of the pancreas to other organs. They include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Pain in the upper or middle part of the abdomen
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Jaundice (a painless yellowing of the skin and in the whites of the eyes)
  • New development of diabetes
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Light-colored stool and general itchiness

Be sure to talk with your doctor if you have experienced these symptoms.

What are the risk factors of pancreatic cancer?

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • Pancreatic cysts
  • Smoking
  • Long-standing diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas, especially in people who smoke)
  • Age (55+ years)
  • Obesity
  • Race (African-Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than white, Hispanic, or Asian-Americans)
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Genetic factors; one or more inherited genetic mutations, including as part of the following familial cancer syndromes: Hereditary pancreatitis, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 syndrome, hereditary breast-ovarian cancer (HBOC), hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome), von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, and the familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM).

Learn more about treatment for pancreatic cancer at Dana-Farber.