Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms & Signs

Pancreatic cancer is often referred to as a “silent cancer” because it is thought that the early symptoms can be vague and unrecognised.  Pancreatic cancer symptoms however can present themselves early in many cases.  Here are some of the most common symptoms to look out for:

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms explained on this poster

Classic pancreatic cancer symptoms can include:

  • Painless jaundice (yellow skin/eyes, dark urine, itching).  This is related to bile duct obstruction
  • Weight loss which is significant and unexplained
  • Abdominal pain which is new-onset and significant

Other possible symptoms of pancreatic cancer:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to the back which is new, significant and persistent that is relieved by leaning forward
  • Back pain
  • Diabetes which is new-onset and not associated with weight gain
  • Vague indigestion (dyspepsia) or abdominal discomfort (not responding to prescribed medication)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain when eating
  • Steatorrhea (fatty stools that are often pale and smell foul)

Not everyone will have all of these symptoms.  For example, those who have a tumour in the body or tail of the pancreas are unlikely to have painless jaundice.  All of these symptoms can have other causes, and there is not yet a reliable and easy test for pancreatic cancer.

Explanation of the symptoms:

Pain in the abdomen and upper back

Approximately 70 per cent of patients with pancreatic cancer go to the doctor initially due to pain.  This pain is often described as beginning in the stomach area and radiating around to the upper back (just above where a woman’s bra strap would be).

This pain is worse when lying down than sitting up.

Generally the reason for the pain is because of the tumour pressing against your abdomen and spine.


Half of patients will have yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, jaundice, when they first go to the doctors.  This is related to the tumour blocking the bile duct which leads to a build-up of bile in the liver.

Jaundice may be more obvious in the whites of the eyes and bad jaundice can cause itching of the skin.


Many of our patients or relatives have said that they have experienced mood changes before being diagnosed.

Mild to severe depression can often present itself in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.  This is why if someone who has never suffered from a severe bout of depression before should express their concerns to their GP.  It can often highlight a medical problem in the very early stages.

Bowel changes

A tumour in the pancreas can cause bowel disturbances which means you do not absorb your food properly.  This will result in regular, large bowel movements of pale and smelly stool.   This can also cause weight loss.


Diabetes is due to a deficiency in insulin, which is produced by the pancreas.  A tumour can stop the pancreas producing insulin leading to an onset of diabetes in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.

You may have diabetes if you have low energy, pass more urine than normal and feel extremely thirsty.

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.

Are you worried about symptoms you may be having?

If so, there are some tools that can help you; the online Symptom Checker and by downloading our symptoms diary.

Symptoms checker

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms checkerClick here to link to the online symptoms checker,powered by Isabel Healthcare, where you can input your age, gender and as many symptoms you are experiencing and this will bring up a list of conditions that may explain the symptoms you are having. This list can be printed off or even emailed for discussion with your GP.

This symptoms checker is not a substitute for medical advice. If you are worried about symptoms you may be experiencing, contact your GP or the NHS 111 service.

Keep a symptoms diary:

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.

Use our Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms Diary

NHS 111 ServiceContact the NHS 111 Service for help and advice.

 Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Signs.For general health information including information on pancreatic cancer

 Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Signs.For general health information including information on pancreatic cancer

The information provided in this site, or through links to other websites, is not a substitute for medical or professional care and should not be relied upon as such. Read our disclaimer.

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Information Product No. PCA0011v1 | Published: 03/01/2014 | Last Updated: 12/09/2017 | Next Review Due: 03/01/2017