Both the function and location of the pancreas make it difficult to detect pancreatic cancer, which is why the disease is often referred to as a “silent cancer”. Not only do many symptoms in both exocrine and endocrine cancers go unnoticed early on, symptoms typically do not develop until the cancer has reached advanced stages or spread to other parts of the body.
Not all symptoms, however, mean a patient has pancreatic cancer. In some cases, symptoms may be related to another medical condition altogether. Either way, it’s important to know what to look out for.
Common signs and symptoms of exocrine pancreatic cancer can include:
- Jaundice - The pancreas works with the liver, so when the pancreas isn’t working properly the bilirubin produced in the liver will build-up. This blockage of the bile ducts will result in yellowing of the skin and/or white of the eyes, dark or brown urine, or itchy skin. Jaundice will usually be the first symptom of pancreatic cancer; however, pancreatic cancer not the most common cause of jaundice.
- Sudden, unexplained weight loss
- Poor appetite - This includes having little or no appetite for all foods, including foods that you typically enjoy eating.
- Change in stools - Light-colored (gray or tan), oily, or watery due to the body not digesting fats well and the pancreas not being able to deliver bilirubin to your stools. Stool may also float and be excessively foul-smelling.
- Upper abdominal pain which can extend to the back
- Unexplained nausea and vomiting
- Gallbladder or liver enlargement - Often found by a doctor during a physical exam or during imaging tests. If the cancer is blocking the bile duct or liver, the organs may become enlarged.
- Blood clots - Often occurring in a large vein in the leg or arm. This is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and will include painful, red, warm, swelling in the affected limb.
- Diabetes - A new onset or sudden change in well-managed blood sugar levels.
While the majority of pancreatic cancers develop in the exocrine cells, which are the pancreatic secretions critical to proper digestion, some symptoms may be related to a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. Different tumors make different hormones, which can lead to different symptoms than the exocrine ones listed above.
Some of these of endocrine pancreatic cancer symptoms may include:
- Stomach ulcers
- Excess thirst and/or hunger
- Weakness, confusion, sweating, and heart palpitations
- Problems digesting food - Include diarrhea, vomiting and stomach bloating. Often due to low levels of stomach acid.
- Muscle cramps
Again, not everyone will have all of these symptoms and some may be attributed to a number of conditions other than pancreatic cancer, including irritable bowel syndrome, pancreatitis (an infection of the pancreas), and celiac disease. If you persistently experience any of these signs and symptoms, consider keeping a written log and contact your doctor immediately so an accurate diagnosis can be made. The longer you wait to address abnormal symptoms, the harder it becomes to diagnose and treat pancreatic cancer.