Signs and symptoms
Pancreatic cancer often doesn’t cause any signs or symptoms in the early stages. This can make it hard to diagnose early. But as the cancer grows, it may start to cause symptoms. These will depend on the type of pancreatic cancer and where it is in the pancreas. 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, such as indigestion or heartburn. They can also be caused by conditions such as pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome, or hepatitis (inflammation of the liver).
These symptoms don’t necessarily mean that someone has pancreatic cancer. But if you have any symptoms that you’re worried about it’s important that you see your GP.
What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
The most common type of pancreatic cancer is called pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). The information here is about the symptoms of PDAC. There are also rare types of pancreatic cancer called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (PNETs) of pancreatic cancer. They may cause some of the symptoms here, as well as some different symptoms. Read more about the symptoms of PNETs.
Other symptoms include:
- loss of appetite
- changes to bowel habits – including steatorrhoea (pale, smelly stools (poo) that may float), diarrhoea (loose watery stools) or constipation (problems opening your bowels)
- jaundice (yellow skin and eyes, and itching)
- nausea and vomiting (feeling and being sick)
- difficulty swallowing
- recently diagnosed diabetes
You may find it helpful to have a look at our diagram of the pancreas and surrounding organs when reading the information below.
What should I do if I have symptoms?
If you have jaundice, go to your GP 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. They should refer you for tests to find out what is causing them.
It can help to keep a record of how often you have symptoms. Mention anything unusual to your GP, even if it doesn’t seem to be related to the symptoms. It’s important to give your GP a good description of your symptoms, including any changes to your bowel habits.
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.
Pain is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer. It often starts as general discomfort or pain in the tummy area that can spread to the back.
The pain may 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. The tummy area may also feel tender.
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, meaning that food is not properly digested, which can cause 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
- nausea or vomiting (feeling or being sick)
- diarrhoea (loose, watery stools)
- constipation (problems opening the bowels) or
- have been diagnosed with diabetes in the last year.
Indigestion or heartburn (dyspepsia) can sometimes be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. However, they are common problems and aren’t usually due to cancer.
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.
A common symptom of pancreatic cancer is steatorrhoea. This is caused by fat in the stools. Stools may be large, pale, oily, smell horrible and can be difficult to flush down the toilet. It can happen if pancreatic cancer has affected digestion, meaning that fat in food isn’t digested properly.
Pancreatic cancer can also cause diarrhoea and constipation. 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 cause jaundice, which develops when there is a build-up of a substance called bilirubin in the blood. The most common signs of jaundice are that your skin and the whites of your eyes turn yellow. Family and friends may notice this first. Jaundice also causes dark urine, pale stools and itchy skin.
Jaundice may be caused by other non-cancerous conditions such as gallstones or hepatitis. But if you are over 40 and develop jaundice, your GP should refer you to see a specialist for tests within two weeks.
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.
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.
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.
Diabetes can make someone feel very thirsty, pass more urine than normal, lose weight, and feel 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.
Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer
Other symptoms can include:
- extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- feeling unusually full after food
- fever and shivering
- blood clots in a vein.
If you’re worried about any of the symptoms mentioned here, speak to your GP.
Published June 2016
Review date June 2018