Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer often develops silently.

Because the pancreas is nestled among other organs far inside the abdominal cavity, doctors usually can't feel a growing tumor.

Symptoms — particularly in the early stages — often aren't intense. When they do appear, the cancer is often advanced.

Symptoms and signs of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Blood clots
  • Change in stools
  • Trouble digesting food 
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sudden onset of diabetes
  • Unexplained and rapid weight loss
  • Upper abdominal pain or middle back pain

Exocrine pancreatic cancer symptoms

Exocrine pancreatic cancer, responsible for more than 90 percent of cases, has a variety of symptoms including:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Upper abdomen or mid-back pain
  • Blood clots
  • Changes in stool
  • Diabetes
  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Depression
  • Fatigue

Endocrine pancreatic cancer symptoms

There are two types of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors:

  • Functional - produce hormones and cause hormone-related symptoms
  • Nonfunctional - do not cause hormone-related symptoms

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: High blood sugar, which sometimes leads to 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

Because nonfunctional tumors do not produce hormones, symptoms often do not show until the tumor grows large. They include:

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

If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer or genetic conditions linked to it, 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 tests to classify the type and stage of your disease.

Staging is a process that determines the spread of the cancer cells within and around the pancreas.

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

Tests and procedures to diagnose pancreatic cancer 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 ensures that every member of the care team understands 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 possibly also to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV — cancer has spread to organs and tissues far away from the pancreas, such as the lungs.

You can ask your doctor several questions after getting diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, including:

  • 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?

While improvements have been made in the treatment and diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, the current reported five-year survivor rate is 9 percent.

Your prognosis will depend on many factors:

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

The 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.