Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Often if you are experiencing these symptoms, the cause is not cancer. But if you have persistent or worsening symptoms that are not usual for you then you should visit you GP or call NHS 111 to investigate.

The symptoms listed below are some of the main signs of pancreatic cancer. You may not have all of these symptoms and they may come and go a vary in severity. Click on to find out: ‘What it is and how do I know if i have this?’

What are the main symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Click to watch: Presley Pancreas and friends

Presley Pancreas and friends

Presley Pancreas is an important organ, he produces enzymes that help break down your food and hormones which control your blood sugar levels. No one knows who he is, until it's almost too late.

  • Jaundice

    Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, and/or very itchy skin.

Symptom diary image
Patient Information Booklets

Symptoms diary

If you are having symptoms you feel might be pancreatic cancer and you are worried, this diary could help you to talk to your doctor. Using a symptoms diary will help you track when you have been having symptoms, and how frequent and persistent they are.

It is important to remember these symptoms can be caused by many different conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome or indigestion, and aren’t usually the result of cancer.

However, if you regularly experience one or more of these symptoms which are not normal for you, do not ignore them, contact your GP straight away.

Keeping track of any symptoms you may be experiencing can be useful when discussing them with your GP. Click here for the Pancreatic Cancer Action symptoms diary.

Click to watch: Dr Hilary Jones: Do you know the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Dr Hilary Jones: Do you know the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

What is it and how do I know if I have this?

Jaundice

What is it?

Jaundice is common in people with pancreatic cancer. It develops when the bile duct becomes blocked by the tumour and yellow pigment (bilirubin) builds up in the body that is normally excreted (passed). Jaundice may be painless, but it can be very itchy and irritating. It can also make the skin feel hot and uncomfortable; this is called pruritis. Jaundice can also cause nausea and vomiting as well as digestive problems and tiredness.

How do I know I have this?

The most obvious sign is yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes; Jaundice may also cause your urine to be dark yellow and/or itching of the skin. You should seek urgent medical advice if you are worried that you have the signs of jaundice. You will need to be referred for tests to identify the cause. NICE guidelines suggest that anyone with jaundice should be investigated further.

More information on jaundice in pancreatic cancer patients.

Pain or discomfort in the abdomen

What is it?

Abdominal (tummy) pain or discomfort is one of the most common symptoms and one of the first symptoms to often present itself.

The pain or discomfort can be caused by the tumour invading nerves or organs that lie near the pancreas. The pain or discomfort is usually felt above the belly button and below the breast area (called the epigastric region), however, some patients report they have pain and discomfort without a specific location.

How do I know if I have this?

Having tummy pain or discomfort is a common symptom for many diseases and does not mean you have pancreatic cancer. However, if this is new and unusual for you or combined with other symptoms you should visit your GP to check.

Mid-back pain or discomfort

What is it? 

Mid-back pain can be a sign of pancreatic cancer. The pain can be caused by a tumour invading nerves or organs that lie near the pancreas. Some people also report that they feel pain in their shoulder or under their shoulder blade. Other people feel pain in their back and abdomen (tummy) at the same time.

How do I know if I have this?

Back pain is experienced by people in the population and having mid-back pain does not mean you have pancreatic cancer. However, if you are experiencing mid back pain (in the region just below your shoulder blades) that is not normal for you, there is no harm in checking with your GP – especially if you are experiencing any of the other symptoms described here.

Changes in bowel habit

What is it?

People with pancreatic cancer sometimes experience constipation (when your stools are very firm and difficult to push out, sometimes accompanied by stomach pain) or diarrhoea (passing of watery stools more than 3 times a day). Stools can also be large, pale, smelly and float. This is because there is too much fat in the stool as food is not digested properly.

How do I know if I have this?

Constipation and diarrhoea are quite common. However, if a change in your bowels keeps happening or lasts longer than a week, discuss this with your GP. It does not mean you have pancreatic cancer and your GP may be able to resolve your symptoms easily.

Indigestion

What is it?

After you eat or drink you may feel a burning or uncomfortable feeling in your chest. This may be accompanied by feeling or being sick or you may feel bloated and repeatedly burp or pass wind. Most people experience this from time to time and it is not something to worry about. However, if indigestion continues despite treatment from a pharmacy or your GP it could be a sign of pancreatic cancer.

How do I know if I have this?

The above symptoms are signs of indigestion. If you keep having this, and it is unusual for you or you are experiencing it alongside other symptoms described here, discuss this with your GP. If treatments for indigestion are not working, it is also important to discuss this with your doctor.

Loss of appetite

What is it?

This is when you don’t really feel like eating, or you feel full after eating only a very small amount of food.

How do I know if I have this?

Loss of appetite does not mean you have pancreatic cancer, it is a common symptom of many diseases. Many of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer can cause loss of appetite. But these are often not due to cancer. For example, constipation, weight loss or vomiting and diarrhoea. However, if you experience this, together with any of these other symptoms, it is worth going to your GP to try to find out the cause.

Nausea and vomiting

What is it?

Nausea (feeling sick), this is when you feel uneasy, discomfort and disgust towards food like your stomach is churning. Sometimes you can also have a mild headache feeling. Vomiting is when you uncontrollably release the contents of your stomach out of your mouth. Often these symptoms will pass in a few days and are not anything to worry about.

How do I know if I have this?

It will be quite obvious if you have these symptoms, but if this is not normal for you and keeps happening, this may be something to start being aware of and monitor. Using our symptoms diary  may be helpful and you can show this to your GP.

Diabetes

What is it?

Diabetes is when the body is not regulating its blood sugar levels properly. When we eat, the pancreas makes enzymes and hormones to digest food and sugar (glucose) is produced. Blood sugar levels are regulated by insulin, a hormone generated in the pancreas. If your body cannot use its own insulin effectively, type 2 diabetes develops. Your blood sugar becomes too high.

If your type 2 diabetes has developed recently and cannot be explained by your lifestyle or diet (you are not overweight), it can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer patients have reported developing diabetes up to two years before pancreatic cancer was diagnosed.

What are the signs you may have diabetes?

  • Urinating more often than usual, particularly at night
  • Extreme tiredness/ fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Cuts or wounds that heal slowly
  • Blurred vision
  • Itching around the penis or vagina and frequent episodes of thrush

Diabetes is not always a symptom of pancreatic cancer; the two diseases are linked but exactly how remains unclear. However, if you do have any of the symptoms of diabetes it is still important to see your GP as untreated diabetes can be a risk to your health. Pancreatic cancer can also cause type 3c diabetes (link) which may be misdiagnosed as type 2. This is diabetes caused by damage to the pancreas.

Fatigue

What is it?

This is when you feel very tired or exhausted most, if not all, of the time. This can be described as a lack of energy and motivation (physical and mental). It also does not go away with sleep, and people describe it as different to tiredness they have experienced before.

How do I know if I have this?

Fatigue can be a consequence of many medical conditions, such as depression, as well as cancer. Fatigue can also range in its severity. If your fatigue is not normal for you and is not being caused by a stressful or upsetting period in your life this may be a sign of cancer, and you may wish to discuss this with your GP.

Unexplained weight loss

What is it?

This is often one of the first problems patients tell their doctors about. Weight loss over a 6 to 12 month period is cause for concern if you did not intend to lose the weight or you do not know why it has happened.  The unexpected weight loss associated with pancreatic cancer can occur without any pain or apparent change in digestion, so it is important to have it checked by your GP.

How do I know if I have this?

You may be able to tell if you have lost weight without weighing yourself on scales. If clothing or jewellery feels loose or people comment on your weight loss. Unexpected weight loss can be a sign of a number of diseases, so you should see your GP to investigate why this is happening to you.

NICE guidelines suggest that those over 60 with weight loss and any of the following other symptoms should be sent for a CT scan: Diarrhoea, back pain, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, constipation, or diabetes that has developed recently.

If this applies to you, it is important you see your GP to investigate the cause.

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Information Product No. PCA0011v2 | Published: 01/10/2019 | Last Updated: 18/11/2019 | Next Review Due: 01/10/2022