Managing jaundice if you have pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer can cause jaundice, but there are ways to treat it.

Jaundice can cause: 

  • yellow eyes and skin 
  • an itchy feeling 
  • dark urine and pale poo 
  • loss of appetite 
  • feeling or being sick. 

Yellow skin may be less obvious if you have brown or black skin, but you may notice the white part of your eyes looks yellow. You can see photographs of jaundice on the NHS website.

Some people may also get pain underneath the ribs that spreads to the back, or have a high temperature. 

Sometimes, jaundice is one of the first signs that you may have pancreatic cancer.

What causes jaundice?

Pancreatic cancer causes jaundice by blocking your bile duct. This may be called obstructive jaundice. Your bile duct is the tube that takes bile from your liver to your duodenum. This is the first part of the small intestine.

Bile is a fluid which your liver makes to help you digest food. It contains a yellow substance called bilirubin. Bilirubin is the waste product of the normal breakdown of old red blood cells. If your bile duct is blocked, it can cause a build-up of bilirubin in your blood. This can lead to jaundice.

How is jaundice treated?

If your cancer can be removed with surgery and you are well enough to have the operation straight away, the surgery will treat the jaundice.

If you aren’t fit enough yet for surgery, or you can’t have surgery, you may need to have a small tube put into your bile duct. This is called a stent. This should open up the blockage and treat the jaundice. Read more about stents to treat jaundice.

Most people notice an improvement in their jaundice within a few weeks.

Speak to your doctor or nurse if you have symptoms of jaundice. It’s important that it is treated.

Questions about jaundice?

If you have any questions about jaundice and how it’s managed, you can speak to our specialist nurses on our Support Line.

Speak to our nurses
Specialist nurse Rachel

Published November 2022

Review date November 2025