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Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer often doesn’t cause any signs or symptoms in the early stages. This can make it hard to diagnose early. As the cancer grows, it may start to cause symptoms. The symptoms and how bad they are can vary for each person.

It’s important to remember that symptoms described here can be caused by more common things. They can also be caused by conditions such as pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or hepatitis (inflammation of the liver).

What are the symptoms?

The information here is about the most common type of pancreatic cancer, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). There are also rarer types of pancreatic cancer called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (PNETs). They may cause some of the symptoms here, as well as some different symptoms. Read more about the symptoms of PNETs.

The symptoms of PDAC can be quite vague and may come and go to begin with. They may depend on where the cancer is in the pancreas, and you may not have all of these symptoms.

Common symptoms include:

Other symptoms include:

You may find it helpful to have a look at our information on what the pancreas does when reading the information below.

What should I do if I have symptoms?

If you have jaundice, go to your GP or accident and emergency (A&E) without delay. If you have any of the other symptoms, you don’t know why you have them, and they last four weeks or more, go to your GP.

These symptoms don’t necessarily mean that you have pancreatic cancer, but you should get them checked out. Your GP should make a request for you (refer you) to have tests to find out what is causing these symptoms.

If your symptoms get worse or you develop any new symptoms suddenly, you should always see your GP. If your symptoms don’t improve, go back to your GP until you get a firm diagnosis, or a referral for tests to find out what’s causing them.

Read more about going to the GP if you have symptoms. Our top tips can help you talk to your GP.

Abdominal and back pain

Pain is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer. It often starts as general discomfort, tenderness or pain in the tummy area that can spread to the back.

Some people may have no pain at all. And pain can vary from person to person. For example, it may come and go at first but become more constant over time. It can be worse when lying down, and sitting forward can sometimes make it feel better. It may be worse after eating.

Unexplained weight loss

Losing a lot of weight for no particular reason can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. This is because the pancreas plays an important role in digesting food. Pancreatic cancer can affect this, causing weight loss.

Your GP should refer you to have a CT scan (or an ultrasound scan if a CT scan isn’t available) within two weeks if you are over 60, and have weight loss, and any of the following:

  • tummy or back pain
  • feeling or being sick (nausea or vomiting)
  • diarrhoea (loose, watery poo)
  • constipation (problems opening the bowels)
  • or you have been diagnosed with diabetes in the last year.

Read about the tests used to diagnose pancreatic cancer.

Indigestion

Indigestion (dyspepsia) can sometimes be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. Indigestion causes a painful, burning feeling in your chest, and can leave a bitter, unpleasant taste in your mouth.

These symptoms are common problems and aren’t usually due to cancer.

Loss of appetite

Loss of appetite and not feeling like eating can be a common symptom of pancreatic cancer. But this can also be caused by other things.

Changes to bowel habits

Pancreatic cancer can cause diarrhoea (loose, watery poo) and constipation (problems emptying your bowels). If you are over 60, have lost weight and have diarrhoea or constipation, your GP should refer you for a scan within two weeks.

Pancreatic cancer can also cause oily, floaty poo – which is known as steatorrhoea. Poo may be large, pale, smell horrible and can be difficult to flush down the toilet. Steathorrheoa is caused by fat in the poo. It happens if pancreatic cancer has affected digestion, meaning that fat in food isn’t digested properly.

Jaundice

Pancreatic cancer can cause jaundice. Signs of jaundice include yellow skin and eyes, dark urine, pale poo and itchy skin. Jaundice develops when there is a build-up of a substance called bilirubin in the blood.

If you have jaundice, visit your GP  or accident and emergency (A&E) without delay. Jaundice may be caused by other non-cancerous conditions such as gallstones or hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). But if you are over 40 and develop jaundice, your GP should refer you to see a specialist for tests within two weeks.

Recently diagnosed diabetes

Diabetes is a condition where the amount of sugar in the blood is too high. The pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, which helps to control the amount of sugar in the blood. If pancreatic cancer stops the pancreas working properly, it may not produce enough insulin, causing diabetes.

Symptoms of diabetes include feeling very thirsty, passing more urine than normal (especially at night), losing weight, and feeling tired.

Your GP should refer you for a scan within two weeks if you are over 60, have lost weight and have recently been diagnosed with diabetes.

Problems digesting food

It is common for pancreatic cancer to cause problems with eating and digesting food. This is because the pancreas plays an important role in breaking down food (digestion).

Symptoms caused by problems digesting food include feeling full quickly when eating, bloating, lots of wind, and burping. But these symptoms are common problems and aren’t usually due to cancer.

Feeling or being sick

Pancreatic cancer can make you feel or be sick (nausea and vomiting). If you are over 60, have lost weight and have nausea or vomiting, your GP should refer you for a scan within two weeks.

Difficulty swallowing

Some people may have problems swallowing their food. They might cough or choke when they eat, bring food back up, or feel that food is stuck in their throat.

If you have problems swallowing, go to your GP. This can also be caused by other health problems.

Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • generally feeling unwell
  • fever and shivering
  • blood clots in a vein (deep vein thrombosis).

If you’re worried about any of the symptoms mentioned here, speak to your GP.

If you are worried about symptoms, read our information about visiting your GP

Read our 10 top tips to help you talk to your GP

You can discuss these symptoms with our specialist nurses

Read about the risk factors for pancreatic cancer

Have you been recently diagnosed? We have lots of information and support available 

Updated August 2018

Review date August 2020

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