What’s pancreatic cancer?
The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach. It releases enzymes that help with digestion, as well as hormones that help regulate blood sugar levels.
If you have pancreatic cancer, you won’t be able to feel a lump or mass when you press on the outside of your abdomen. You may not have any symptoms until the cancer has already spread.
Unlike breast, colon, and prostate cancers, pancreatic cancer isn’t routinely found with screening tests. People aren’t generally tested because no screening test for pancreatic cancer has been proven to save lives.
Pancreatic cancer is sometimes called a silent disease because it’s hard to spot early, the stage when it’s most treatable. Besides knowing the symptoms, knowing the risk factors for pancreatic cancer is your best protection against this disease. For example, your chances of developing pancreatic cancer are significantly higher if:
- you have a family history of the cancer
- you’re a smoker
- you’re obese
- you’re exposed to certain pesticides and chemicals on a regular basis
Pancreatic cancer can be found in the exocrine glands, which produce enzymes that help you digest food. Or, it can be found in the endocrine glands, which produce the hormones insulin and glucagon that regulate blood sugar levels.
There are often no symptoms in the early phase of this cancer. Some potential symptoms may occur as the tumor enlarges.
As cancer spreads, it can press down on nerves or other organs, causing pain. A blockage in the digestive tract can also lead to pain. Most people with pain from pancreatic cancer experience pain in their abdomen or back regions.
Pancreatic cancer can lower your appetite, leading to eventual weight loss. Some pancreatic cancers produce hormones that make it harder for your body to get nutrients from foods. So even if you eat a normal diet, you may lose weight or become malnourished.
Excessive hunger or thirst
These symptoms are signs of diabetes, a condition where your body doesn’t produce enough insulin to control your blood sugar. Diabetes occurs when the cancer destroys insulin-making cells in your pancreas.
Bile is a yellowish-brown fluid released by your liver to help your body digest food. Bile is normally stored in the gallbladder. From there, it travels through the common bile duct to the intestines to be removed from your body via stool. But when the common bile duct is blocked by a tumor, bilirubin can’t be removed and too much of it builds up in your body.
When you have too much bilirubin in your body, the excess can get into your urine and stain it brown.
If the common bile duct is blocked, bile can get trapped in your gallbladder. This causes the gallbladder to grow larger than normal. Your doctor may be able to feel the enlarged gallbladder during an exam. You may also have upper abdominal tenderness.
Swelling, redness, and pain of the leg
These are signs of a blood clot in a deep vein of the leg. It’s called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). A clot is sometimes the first sign of pancreatic cancer. If the clot breaks off and travels to the lung, it can cause a pulmonary embolism. You’ll likely experience shortness of breath.
Weakness, confusion, sweating, and fast heartbeat
These are symptoms of insulinomas, or tumors that produce insulin. Too much insulin lowers the level of sugar in your blood. You can faint or even go into a coma if your blood sugar dips too low.
The pancreas plays an important role in digestion. If you develop a tumor in your pancreas, your digestive system may be affected, which can lead to general weight loss and/or a combination of the symptoms described below.
Nausea and vomiting
If the tumor affects hormones and enzymes involved in digestion, you may feel sick to your stomach. Some pancreatic cancers increase the amount of acid in your stomach. Others partially or completely block the stomach and intestine, preventing food from getting through.
Diarrhea can occur with many types of pancreatic cancers. It can also be a sign of a tumor called a VIPoma. This uncommon pancreatic tumor releases a substance called vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), which sends more water into your digestive system. Excess water in your intestines can lead to severe, watery diarrhea.
Pancreatic cancer can also prevent you from properly absorbing nutrients from the foods you eat, which can also trigger diarrhea.
Light-colored or greasy stools
Stools that contain little or no bilirubin turn a lighter color. Cancer can also prevent the pancreas from releasing its digestive enzymes, making it harder for your body to break down fat. That undigested fat can end up in your stool, making it float or look greasy.
As the tumor enlarges, you may also experience some symptoms of the skin. These may include the following:
When you have jaundice, your skin and the whites of your eyes turn yellow. People with pancreatic cancer can get jaundiced when the tumor is in the head of the pancreas and blocks the common bile duct. When this blockage happens, bilirubin can’t pass through so an excess amount builds up in the body, causing jaundice.
When excess bilirubin builds up in the skin, it also tends to cause itchiness and irritation.
People with glucagonoma, a type of pancreatic tumor, can get a red, blistering rash in various parts of their body. The rash is caused by an overproduction of the hormone glucagon.
It’s important to remember that a lot of different conditions can cause these or similar symptoms. Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have pancreatic cancer. However, it’s a good reason to see your doctor.