8 Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms You’ve Probably Been Ignoring
A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is almost always serious, but symptoms often aren’t noticeable until the disease is in the advanced stages. Talk to your doctor if you spot any of these warning signs.
Your skin looks yellow
Though pancreatic cancer is not the most common, it’s incredibly deadly: according to the National Cancer Institute, only about 11.5% of people diagnosed will survive five years or more. That means it’s crucial to know the warning signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer so you can keep a sharp eye out. If your skin looks yellow, that could be a bad sign.
“Jaundice is one of the clearest symptoms of pancreatic cancer,” says Christopher J. DiMaio, MD, a gastroenterologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Often, patients feel fine until one day a friend notices their eyes look yellow, then they go to the doctor and find they have advanced pancreatic cancer.” Cancers that start near the head of the pancreas can block the bile duct, preventing bile from reaching the intestines, where it helps break down fats and eventually leaves the body in the stool. This bile builds up and causes jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin or eyes, Dr. DiMaio explains.
You experience abdominal or back pain
Place the tip of your finger on the top of your abdomen, just below the breastbone. Then imagine your finger pointing straight back through your body to the spine. That’s a common location that pancreatic cancer patients report feeling pain, says Dr. DiMaio. “The pain is hard to describe, but a dull, internal pain in this area, or radiating around the sides of your abdomen to the back, is a tip-off and you should get it checked out,” he says. Cancers that start in the body or tail of the pancreas can press on nearby organs, causing pain. If the cancer spreads to the nerves surrounding the pancreas, this can lead to back pain.
You have dark urine or greasy stools
If your urine starts to look dark (brown or rust-colored), this may be one of the pancreatic cancer symptoms you should notice. As bilirubin, a substance made by the liver that partly makes up bile, builds in the blood the color of urine darkens. Clay-colored or greasy stools can also be symptoms of pancreatic cancer, says Dr. DiMaio. Dark urine and greasy stools can also be signs of other conditions, though, including hepatitis and certain blood disorders, so be sure to have a conversation with your doctor.
You experience nausea or vomiting
Cancer pressing on the far end of the stomach can cause a partial blockage, making it hard for food to get through. According to the American Cancer Society, this can cause nausea, vomiting and pain that tends to be worse after eating. If you experience any of these issues regularly, they could be symptoms of pancreatic cancer.
You develop pancreatitis
Pancreatic cancer is one of the 7 cancers that are hard to detect early, but “unexplained or chronic pancreatitis can be caused by a small tumor on the pancreas,” says Dr. DiMaio. Though pancreatitis is more commonly caused by gallstones, new medications or alcohol abuse, if you develop the condition and don’t have any of those risk factors, it could be something more serious, he says.
You have poor oral hygiene
If your mouth is a mess of bad breath, inflamed gums or loose teeth, it could be more than bad hygiene. “Pancreatic cancer patients are known to be susceptible to gum disease, cavities and poor oral health in general,” according to researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center, who conducted a study examining mouth bacteria of pancreatic cancer patients versus people without pancreatic cancer. They found that the presence of the same bacteria that has been tied to dental diseases like periodontitis (inflammation of the gums) put participants at a 59% greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer than those whose mouths didn’t contain the bacteria.
You’ve recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes
A diabetes diagnosis doesn’t mean you’ll get pancreatic cancer, but it is associated with an increased risk. One Mayo Clinic study found that 40% of pancreatic patients were diagnosed with diabetes in the months before their cancer diagnosis. The pancreas is responsible for creating insulin, so the early stages of the tumor may affect the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin, causing diabetes, Dr. DiMaio explains.
You have unexplained weight loss
If you suddenly have little to no appetite, or if you’re losing weight without changing your diet or exercise regimen, see your doctor; these are some of the common pancreatic cancer symptoms, says Dr. DiMaio.
- Christopher J DiMaio, MD, gastroenterologist, The Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City.
- Gastroenterology: "Model to Determine Risk of Pancreatic Cancer in Patients With New-Onset Diabetes."
- News Release, NYU Langone Medical Center / New York University School of Medicine.