Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas — an organ in your abdomen that lies horizontally behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help manage your blood sugar.
Pancreatic cancer typically spreads rapidly to nearby organs. It is seldom detected in its early stages. But for people with pancreatic cysts or a family history of pancreatic cancer, some screening steps might help detect a problem early. One sign of pancreatic cancer is diabetes, especially when it occurs with weight loss, jaundice or pain in the upper abdomen that spreads to the back.
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don't occur until the disease is advanced. They may include:
- Pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to your back
- Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
- New-onset diabetes
- Blood clots
- Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
- Chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
- Family history of genetic syndromes that can increase cancer risk, including a BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome
- Family history of pancreatic cancer
- Older age, as most people are diagnosed after age 65
- Weight loss. A number of factors may cause weight loss in people with pancreatic cancer. The cancer itself may cause weight loss. Nausea and vomiting caused by cancer treatments or a tumor pressing on your stomach may make it difficult to eat. Or your body may have difficulty processing nutrients from food because your pancreas isn't making enough digestive juices.
- Your doctor may recommend pancreatic enzyme supplements to aid in digestion. Try to maintain your weight by adding extra calories where you can and making mealtime as pleasant and relaxed as possible.
- Jaundice. Pancreatic cancer that blocks the liver's bile duct can cause jaundice. Signs include yellow skin and eyes, dark-colored urine, and pale-colored stools. Jaundice usually occurs without abdominal pain.
- Your doctor may recommend that a plastic or metal tube (stent) be placed inside the bile duct to hold it open. This is done with the help of a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). During ERCP an endoscope is passed down your throat, through your stomach and into the upper part of your small intestine. A dye is then injected into the pancreatic and bile ducts through a small hollow tube (catheter) that's passed through the endoscope. Finally, images are taken of the ducts.
- Pain. A growing tumor may press on nerves in your abdomen, causing pain that can become severe. Pain medications can help you feel more comfortable. Radiation therapy might help stop tumor growth temporarily to give you some relief.
- In severe cases, your doctor might recommend a procedure to inject alcohol into the nerves that control pain in your abdomen (celiac plexus block). This procedure stops the nerves from sending pain signals to your brain.
- Bowel obstruction. Pancreatic cancer that grows into or presses on the first part of the small intestine (duodenum) can block the flow of digested food from your stomach into your intestines.
- Your doctor may recommend a tube (stent) be placed in your small intestine to hold it open. Or surgery may be necessary to attach your stomach to a lower point in your intestines that isn't blocked by cancer.
- Stop smoking: If you smoke, try to stop. Talk to your doctor about strategies to help you stop, including support groups, medications and nicotine replacement therapy. If you don't smoke, don't start.
- Maintain a healthy weight: If you are at a healthy weight, work to maintain it. If you need to lose weight, aim for a slow, steady weight loss — 1 to 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kilogram) a week. Combine daily exercise with a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and whole grains with smaller portions to help you lose weight.
- Choose a healthy diet: A diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables and whole grains may help reduce your risk of cancer.