Middle aged white man holding his abdomen

What are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

By Amy Magill, Office of Clinical Integrity Oct 09, 2022 • 4 min

Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. It often develops without early symptoms, making it difficult to detect until the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage. By the time this cancer causes symptoms, it has often grown large or already spread to other parts of the body. But knowing your risk factors and the warning signs to look out for may help to find pancreatic cancer sooner. Here you’ll learn more about this serious disease.

Pancreatic cancer basics

Pancreatic cancer begins when cells grow abnormally to form a tumor in the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ that sits behind the stomach and in front of the spine. It produces digestive enzymes that help break down food and hormones that help control blood sugar levels. Most pancreatic cancers develop in the cells that make the digestive enzymes.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer

While the exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, certain factors may contribute to developing the disease. People who smoke, are obese, or have diabetes are more likely to get the disease. People with chronic inflammation of the pancreas, who have a family history of pancreatic cancer or certain inherited genetic syndromes are also at a higher risk. Pancreatic cancer is slightly more common in men than in women.

Pancreatic cancer warning signs

In the early stages of pancreatic cancer, there may not be many noticeable signs. As the cancer grows, symptoms may include:

  • Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and eyes). It develops when the bile duct, a tube that carries a liquid called bile into the intestines to break down fats in food, becomes blocked by the tumor and bilirubin (yellow substance in bile) builds up in the blood. Other signs of jaundice may include dark, brownish urine and persistent light-colored or greasy stools.
  • Pain in the abdomen and back. This occurs when the cancer grows and starts to press on other nearby organs or spreads to nerves surrounding the pancreas.
  • Loss of appetite, nausea or unexpected weight loss. Some or all of these symptoms may occur when the tumor presses on the end of the stomach, making it hard for food to pass through.

Note that if you have one or more of these symptoms, it does not mean you have pancreatic cancer. Many other conditions can cause these symptoms. If you have any unexplained symptoms that worry you, or you think you are at risk for pancreatic cancer, be sure to see your healthcare provider. Pancreatic cancer has a higher chance of being successfully treated when found at an early stage.

Published November 2020. Clinically reviewed and updated by Nancy Kupka, PhD, RN, October 2022.