Hartford Hospital

Conditions In Brief

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Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer does not cause symptoms in its earliest stages. By the time symptoms are noted, the disease has already been growing for some time. Furthermore, the initial symptoms of pancreatic cancer tend to be rather vague, so patients often ignore them for a certain length of time, allowing the disease to continue growing and spreading. By the time the symptoms are obvious enough to alert the patient and the doctor of a problem, the disease has often advanced and spread outside of the pancreas.

If you experience any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to cancer. Most of these symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If you experience any one of them, see your doctor.

  • Decreased appetite —Most patients experience a greatly decreased appetite. This may be one of the first symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Since this may not be immediately noticed and could be a symptom of many other conditions, appetite loss may be overlooked until other symptoms develop.
  • Unintended weight loss —Over time, up to 100% of patients with pancreatic cancer tend to fall about 10% below their ideal body weight. This is due both to their decreased appetite and to their body's inability to process and utilize the nutrients in food. As cancer cells damage and destroy the cells of the pancreas, the pancreas loses the ability to aid in digestion.
  • Pain —About 95% of all patients with pancreatic cancer have pain, often becoming quite severe as the disease advances. The pain is usually located in the abdomen, legs, and mid-back, often worse after eating or while lying down.
  • Jaundice— Jaundice consists of a yellow discoloration of the skin, mucus membranes (tissue including that which lines the mouth), and whites of the eyes. When pancreatic cancer strikes the head of the pancreas, jaundice may occur earlier in the disease because the tumor puts pressure on the common bile duct, the tube that connects the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder to the intestine. When the cancer is located in the body or tail of the pancreas, however, jaundice may occur later in the course of the disease.
  • Fatigue and muscle weakness —A progressive decrease in energy level is common.
  • Nausea and vomiting —About 30% of patients with pancreatic cancer experience nausea and vomiting.
  • Dark urine, light-colored stool—Like jaundice, these symptoms occur earlier in the disease when the tumor is located in the head of the pancreas, causing obstruction of the common bile duct.
  • Depression, mood swings —Many individuals with pancreatic cancer notice changes in their general mood and emotions. Depression and mood swings occur in nearly 30% of patients.
  • Itching generalized —Itching, which is difficult to treat, is a common symptom in patients.

Detailed guide: pancreatic cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/. Accessed April 8, 2009.

DiMagno E. Pancreatic carcinoma. In: Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: WB Saunders Company; 2000: 750-752.

Freelove R, Walling AD. Pancreatic cancer: diagnosis and management. Am Fam Physician. 2006;73:485-492.

What you need to know about cancer of the pancreas. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancerinfo/wyntk/pancreas#2. Accessed April 8, 2009.

Last reviewed September 2013 by Mohei Abouzied, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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