Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer

The signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer include pain in your tummy or back, losing weight without meaning to, indigestion, jaundice, and changes to your bowel habits.

This page lists the symptoms of pancreatic cancer, and explains what to do if you are worried about any of these symptoms.

Someone with pancreatic cancer may not have all the symptoms listed here, and symptoms can vary for each person.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages. As the cancer grows, it may start to cause symptoms. The symptoms may not be specific to pancreatic cancer, and they may come and go to begin with. This can make pancreatic cancer hard to diagnose.

These symptoms can be caused by lots of things, and are unlikely to be pancreatic cancer. If you are not feeling well and you have any of the symptoms on this page, speak to your GP to check if there is anything wrong.

Common symptoms include:

Tummy pain or back pain


Tummy pain or back pain are common symptoms of pancreatic cancer. The pain may start as general discomfort or tenderness in the tummy area and spread to the back.

Some people 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.

If you are over 60, have lost weight and have tummy or back pain, your GP should refer you for an urgent CT scan or ultrasound scan within two weeks.

Weight loss


If you are over 60, your GP should refer you to have a CT scan within two weeks if you have lost weight, and have any of the following symptoms:

• tummy or back pain

• feeling sick or being sick

• diarrhoea

• constipation

• or you have been diagnosed with diabetes in the last year.

If a CT scan isn’t available, you may be sent for an ultrasound scan. Read about the tests used to diagnose pancreatic cancer.

Indigestion


Indigestion causes a painful, burning feeling in your chest. It can also leave a bitter, unpleasant taste in your mouth.

Indigestion can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer, but it can also be a symptom of more common problems and not due to pancreatic cancer. Speak to your GP if you get indigestion a lot.

Other symptoms you might get include:

Losing your appetite


Losing your appetite and not feeling like eating can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer, but it can also be caused by other things. Speak to your GP if you have lost your appetite and you don’t know why.

Changes to bowel habits


Pancreatic cancer can cause diarrhoea (runny poo) and constipation (when you find it harder to poo). If you are over 60, have lost weight and have diarrhoea or constipation, your GP should refer you for a CT scan or ultrasound scan within two weeks.

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

Jaundice


Pancreatic cancer can cause jaundice by blocking the bile duct. The bile duct is the tube that takes bile from the liver to the duodenum (which is the first part of the small intestine).

Signs of jaundice include yellow skin and whites of the eyes, dark urine, pale poo and itchy skin. Some people also feel sick, lose weight or feel tired. Jaundice can be caused by other non-cancerous conditions such as gallstones or hepatitis (inflammation of the liver).

If you think you have jaundice, go to your GP or A&E straight away. If you are over 40 and become jaundiced, 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 (blood sugar level) is too high. The pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, which helps to control the blood sugar level. Pancreatic cancer can stop the pancreas producing enough insulin, which can cause diabetes.

Symptoms of diabetes include:

• feeling very thirsty

• peeing more often than normal, especially at night

• losing weight

• feeling tired.

Speak to your GP if you have recently been diagnosed with diabetes and have any other symptoms listed on this page. You should also speak to your GP if you have diabetes that has become more difficult to control recently.

Your GP should refer you for a CT scan within two weeks if you are over 60, have lost weight and have recently been diagnosed with diabetes. If a CT scan isn’t available, you may be sent for an ultrasound scan.

Problems digesting food such as feeling full quickly when you eat, bloating, burping or wind


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

Symptoms of this include feeling full up quickly when you eat, bloating of your tummy, lots of wind, and burping. But these symptoms are common problems and aren’t usually due to pancreatic cancer.

Feeling or being sick


Pancreatic cancer can make you feel sick 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 CT scan or an ultrasound scan within two weeks.

Blood clots


Pancreatic cancer can cause blood clots, which are also known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Blood clots often happen in your lower leg, but they can happen anywhere in your arms or legs.

Some people don’t get any symptoms of blood clots. Other people may have some pain, swelling or redness in the area of the clot, and the affected area might feel warm to touch. If you have any of these symptoms it’s important to speak to your GP right away. These symptoms can be caused by other things, but it is worth having them checked.

Sometimes, part of a blood clot can break off and travel in the blood to the arteries in the lungs, where it can cause a blockage. This is called a pulmonary embolism (PE). This is more serious, and may cause shortness of breath, sudden chest pain or a dry cough. It is important to see a GP if you have these symptoms, or go to A&E if you can’t get in touch with your GP.

Feeling very tired (fatigue)


Less common symptoms

There are also some less common symptoms of pancreatic cancer. These include having a fever and shivering, and generally feeling unwell or not quite right. Some people also feel like they can’t swallow their food properly, which can be because pancreatic cancer can make you feel full quickly when you are eating.

What should I do if I have symptoms?

If you have jaundice, go to your GP or A&E straight away.

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.

If you have symptoms of pancreatic cancer, it’s really important that you contact your GP, despite the current situation with coronavirus. Don’t worry about your GP or the NHS being too busy at the moment, or it being unsafe.

Read more about coronavirus for people with symptoms.

It’s important to remember that having these symptoms doesn’t always mean that you have pancreatic cancer, but you should get them checked out. These symptoms can be caused by more common things, or health conditions such as pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or hepatitis (inflammation of the liver).

Your GP may make a request (refer you) for tests at the hospital to work out what could be causing your symptoms. These tests might include blood tests or scans.

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

''My stools were pale and refused to flush. I didn't think much of it as I didn't feel unwell at all, but I decided to go and see the doctor just to be sure.’’

''I realised I was losing weight a lot quicker than I had expected, and I began to be concerned. I had also noticed my urine was getting very dark and I had a pain in my back, and my stools really weren’t normal – I just knew something wasn’t right.’’

References and acknowledgements


References

If you would like the references to the sources used to write this information, email us at publications@pancreaticcancer.org.uk

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the following people who reviewed our information on symptoms.

  • Ganesh Radhakrishna, Consultant Clinical Oncologist, The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, Manchester
  • Willie Hamilton, Professor of Primary Care Diagnostics, University of Exeter
  • Victoria Allen, GP with Specialist Interest in HPB Medical Oncology, The Christie NHS Foundation Trust
  • Pancreatic Cancer UK Information Volunteers
  • Pancreatic Cancer UK Specialist Nurses

Updated September 2020

Review date September 2022