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Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer often develops without obvious symptoms, especially in the early phases. When symptoms do appear, the cancer is often advanced.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

There are two main types of pancreatic cancer. Exocrine pancreatic cancer accounts for over 90% of cases. The next largest category is neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer.

Each cancer type may vary in its symptoms and prognosis.

Exocrine pancreatic cancer signs and symptoms

Symptoms and signs of exocrine pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Blood clots.
  • Enlarged abdomen from a swollen gall bladder.
  • Indigestion.
  • Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes, dark urine).
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Pale, greasy stools that float in the toilet.
  • Sudden onset of diabetes.
  • Tiredness (fatigue).
  • Trouble digesting food.
  • Unexplained and rapid weight loss.
  • Upper abdominal pain or middle back pain.

Endocrine pancreatic cancer signs and symptoms

There are two types of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors:

  • Functional. Produce hormones and cause hormone-related symptoms.
  • Non-functional. Do not cause hormone-related symptoms.

Functional tumors can create various hormones, which carry their own related symptoms. These include:

  • Carcinoid tumors. Flushing, diarrhea, wheezing, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, weakness, heart murmurs.
  • Gastrinoma, or Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome. Acid reflux, burning abdominal pain, diarrhea, excess fat in the stools, weight loss.
  • Glucaganoma. Diabetes, skin swelling or irritation, mouth sores, anemia, diarrhea, weight loss.
  • Insulinoma. Low blood sugar, which can produce heart palpitations, sweating, confusion, weakness, and seizures.
  • Somatostatinoma. Diabetes, gallstones, loss of appetite, nausea, weight loss, diarrhea, jaundice.
  • VIPomas. Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, weakness, flushing, digestion problems.

Nonfunctional tumors do not produce hormones. The symptoms of these tumors often do not show until the tumor grows large. They include:

  • Jaundice.
  • Stomach pain.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss.

If you have any of these signs or symptoms for an extended period of time make an appointment to see your primary care physician.

If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer you may want to consult with a genetic counselor, doctor, or nurse about genetic testing.

Your care team at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center will conduct various tests. These tests will classify the type and stage of your disease.

Staging determines the spread of the cancer cells within and around the pancreas.

Diagnosis and staging of pancreatic cancer usually happen at the same time.

These may include:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
  • Needle biopsy.
  • Physical exam.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
  • Ultrasound.

Staging your cancer determines the exact type, size, location, and spread of the cancer.

The stages of pancreatic cancer are:

  • Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ). Abnormal cells exist in the lining of the pancreas. These cells have the potential to form cancer and spread throughout the pancreas.
  • Stage I. Cancer is present in the pancreas only.
  • Stage IA. Describes a tumor that is two centimeters or smaller.
  • Stage IB. Describes a tumor larger than two centimeters.
  • Stage II. Cancer has spread beyond the pancreas.
  • Stage IIA. Cancer affects nearby tissues and organs but not lymph nodes.
  • Stage IIB. Cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage III. Cancer has spread to blood vessels and may have spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV. Cancer has spread to organs and tissues far away from the pancreas, such as the lungs.

After getting diagnosed with pancreatic cancer you should ask your doctor:

  • What kind of pancreatic cancer do I have?
  • What stage of cancer do I have?
  • Has the cancer spread beyond the pancreas?
  • What is the prognosis?
  • What is the best treatment option?
  • Do I need to see any other doctors before beginning treatment?

Treatments for pancreatic cancer are improving. However, the current reported five-year survivor rate is 9 percent.

Your prognosis will depend on many factors:

  • Your diagnosis.
  • Your general health.
  • How well your pancreatic cancer care team expects your treatment plan to work.

Your team at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center will work toward achieving the best outcome possible.

pancreatic cancer cells

Pancreatic Cancer Screenings and Exams

You should think about getting screened if you:

  • Have a family history of pancreatic cancer.
  • Are a male over the age of 55.
  • Have diabetes and are over 50 years old.

Read more about pancreatic cancer screenings.