7 Signs of Pancreatic Cancer

Originally published August 4, 2022

Last updated April 29, 2024

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Doctor holding a purple pancreatic cancer awareness ribbon

Pancreatic cancer is a notoriously deadly disease that is hard to catch early — here are some symptoms to look out for.

Pancreatic cancer has a bad reputation — and for good reason. Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, after lung and colon, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“There are very few early warning signs of pancreatic cancer, which makes it difficult to diagnose in its initial stages,” says Heinz-Josef Lenz, MD, an oncologist at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of Keck Medicine of USC.

Plus, the location of the pancreas makes it hard for doctors to feel tumors during regular checkups. The pancreas is located deep within your body, in between your stomach and spine. Oftentimes, this means the cancer isn’t found until the cancer has spread, which makes it harder to treat. While the symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be tough to identify, Dr. Lenz shares seven signs to be on the lookout for and bring to your doctor’s attention.

1. Jaundice

One of the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer is jaundice. This is a condition that turns the whites of your eyes and skin yellow due to a buildup of bilirubin, a yellow substance made in the liver.

“When a tumor grows on the pancreas, it pushes on your bile duct system, leading to a blockage that causes a backup of bile and what we can see as jaundice,” says Dr. Lenz, a professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

If cancer starts in the “head” of the fish-shaped pancreas, jaundice may occur when the tumor is still small and at an early stage.

2. Itchy skin

The same buildup of bilirubin that can cause jaundice may also trigger another possible telltale sign of pancreatic cancer: itchy skin.

Itchy skin, or pruritus, that doesn’t have a clear cause or doesn’t go away after a few weeks is a symptom you should discuss with your doctor.

3. Changes in stool and urine

A change in the color of urine or stool is yet another bilirubin-related issue that may be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. “You may have darker pee and paler stool than usual,” Dr. Lenz says.

Excess bilirubin can turn urine a brownish color. A blockage of bilirubin, however, can result in lighter-colored stool.

“Pancreatic cancer can prevent the proper enzymes from getting to the intestines and breaking down fat, making stool appear greasier,” he says.

If any of the symptoms described show up and persist for more than one week, you need to see a doctor.

Heinz-Josef Lenz, MD, an oncologist at Keck Medicine of USC

4. Digestive issues or weight loss

Pancreatic cancer may also lead to digestive issues or sudden, unexplained weight loss. “If pancreatic juices don’t flow, digestion is not complete, which can cause bloating, lack of appetite and weight loss, when you’re not trying to shed pounds,” Dr. Lenz says. If a tumor is pressing on the stomach, you may also experience nausea and vomiting.

5. Abdominal or back pain

Another symptom to be on the lookout for is pain in the abdomen or back. This type of discomfort is more likely to occur when the cancer develops in the “body” or “tail” area of the pancreas.

“If a tumor is in the body or tail of the pancreas, symptoms may appear much later,” Dr. Lenz says. “This means the tumor may grow large, before you feel pain or discomfort in your abdomen or back.”

He recommends getting a checkup if you experience any unexplained abdominal pain lasting for more than one to two weeks.

6. Blood clots in legs or lungs

For some people, blood clots may be the first sign of pancreatic cancer. It may present as a blood clot in the leg, called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Or it could be a pulmonary embolism (PE), a blood clot that occurs in the lungs.

“Even though blood clots may be a sign of pancreatic cancer, they are more often caused by other health conditions,” Dr. Lenz says.

7. Sudden onset of diabetes

Pancreatic cancer can disrupt insulin production, which can lead to a sudden onset of diabetes, according to the National Cancer Institute. Generally, diabetes develops over time, so it’s important to get checked by your doctor if you’re experiencing the sudden onset of symptoms.  

Talk to your doctor about any symptoms.

Because it’s so hard to find the disease early, if you do have signs of pancreatic cancer, it’s important to get checked out right away.

“If any of the symptoms described show up and persist for more than one week, you need to see a doctor,” Dr. Lenz says.

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Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a freelance writer covering health, culture, travel and parenting.