Pancreatic cancer symptoms

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on May 10, 2022.

When it comes to telltale signs, pancreatic cancer poses a special challenge. Often referred to as a silent disease, pancreatic cancer symptoms and signs may not be evident during the disease's nascent stages. Doctors usually can’t feel or detect an early tumor during a routine physical.

Buried deep in the abdomen, the pancreas sits hidden behind many organs, including the stomach, small intestine, liver, spleen, gallbladder and bile ducts. So, if a cancerous tumor develops in the pancreas, patients may not notice until it’s grown too large.

By the time symptoms begin, the cancer may have spread beyond the pancreas to other parts of the body.

This article will cover:

Pancreatic cancer screenings

With other cancers, such as breast cancer or colon cancer, patients can undergo routine screenings, including mammograms and colonoscopies, regardless of whether they’re experiencing symptoms. But these types of tests are not available for pancreatic cancer.

Most often, doctors will not scan a patient for pancreatic cancer unless he or she is showing symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they may be easy to confuse with those of other illnesses.

Other, more common conditions such as ulcers or pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) share similar symptoms. 

Pancreatic cancer symptoms are the same for men and women. Below are some of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean someone has pancreatic cancer, but if any of the following occur—and especially more than one—notify a doctor.

Early signs of pancreatic cancer

When symptoms of a pancreatic tumor first appear, they most commonly include jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, which is caused by an excess of bilirubin—a dark, yellow-brown substance made by the liver. Sudden weight loss is also a common early warning sign of pancreatic cancer. Other potential early signs of pancreatic cancer include:

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer


Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes, and it may also cause itchy skin, dark urine and light-colored or greasy stools. It’s more commonly the result of conditions such as hepatitis or gallstones.

So why does jaundice potentially indicate pancreatic cancer?

Because—while jaundice is not most commonly caused by pancreatic cancer— it’s usually one of the first symptoms of pancreatic cancer, and it’s almost always experienced by pancreatic cancer patients.

Typically, the liver releases bile, which contains bilirubin (a dark yellow-brown substance produced in the liver). During digestion, bile travels through the common bile duct into the intestines to ease the breakdown of fats, then it’s eventually excreted in the stool.

But if the common bile duct is blocked (from a tumor that starts in the head of the pancreas, for example), then bilirubin may build up, causing jaundice. In some cases, even small tumors may press on the duct, enabling doctors to find the cancer at an earlier stage. That said, cancers that begin in the body or tail of the pancreas don’t begin to press on the duct until they’ve spread through the pancreas and, in some cases, to other organs—typically the liver, which also worsens jaundice.

Upper or middle belly/back pain

Abdominal pain is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer, as tumors that have grown fairly large start pressing on adjacent organs, causing discomfort and pain.

It’s also common for these cancers to cause pain in the patient’s back, usually as a result of spreading to nerves surrounding the pancreas.

However, back and belly pain may also indicate other conditions besides pancreatic cancer, so it’s important to speak with a doctor if abdominal pain occurs.

Nausea and vomiting

Pancreatic cancer patients who have tumors that have grown near the end of the stomach, which may partially block the normal path of food through the digestive system, may experience nausea, vomiting and increased pain after eating.

Gallbladder or liver swelling

When a tumor blocks the bile duct, the gallbladder may fill up with excess bile and grow. If this is the case, the doctor may be able to find the swelling (a large lump under the right rib cage) during a routine exam. Otherwise, these tumors may appear in imaging tests such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The liver may also swell, particularly if the cancer has spread there. This may also be detected through imaging.

Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Other pancreatic cancer symptoms may include:

  • Blood clots
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Chills and sweats
  • Oily stool

A visual guide to pancreatic cancer symptoms


Diabetes and pancreatic cancer

While less common, developing diabetes may be a sign of pancreatic cancer, especially in patients who are older and have diabetes come on suddenly.

Sometimes, pancreatic cancer may damage the cells in the pancreas that help produce insulin (the hormone that regulates blood sugar, which is made in the pancreas), leading to high blood sugar and diabetes.

Pancreatic cancer may not always alter blood sugar levels enough to show signs of diabetes, but if it does, symptoms may include increased thirst, hunger and urination.

Diabetes as a pancreatic cancer risk factor

Having diabetes also may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Patients who have type 2 diabetes or have had diabetes for several years may be more at risk than those with type 1 diabetes, according to the American Cancer Society. Scientists don’t know exactly why pancreatic cancer is more common in diabetics in general. But it’s important to keep in mind that having diabetes is not a sure indication that someone will develop pancreatic cancer.

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