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Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer is a class of cancer that occurs when the abnormal cell growth begins in the pancreas. These abnormal cells keep dividing and form lumps of tissue called tumors.

As it grows, a pancreatic tumor can affect the function of the pancreas, grow into nearby blood vessels and eventually spread to other parts of the body through a process called metastasis. Pancreatic cancer typically spreads rapidly to nearby organs and it is seldom detected in its early stages.

What are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer symptoms can be vague and vary depend on the location and size of the tumor. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer often do not appear until the disease is at an advanced stage. However, when the tumor grows, symptoms may include:

Abdominal pain

Abdominal pain is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer. It often starts in the upper abdomen and may spread to the back, causing back pain. The pain may usually worsen when lying down or 3 to 5 hours after meals. It may come and go.

Unexplained weight loss

Losing a lot of weight for no particular reason can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. This can be caused by cancerous cells that deprive healthy cells of required nutrients.


A tumor in the pancreas can cause constipation. It happens if pancreatic cancer has affected digestion, meaning that fat in food isn’t digested properly.


Pancreatic cancer also can cause diabetes because the tumor can interfere with insulin production in the pancreas which can lead to developing of diabetes.


Jaundice, a condition characterized by yellowing of the skin and the white of the eyes, generally occurs in people with pancreatic cancer. Jaundice, however, is not the common symptom of pancreatic cancer. Other diseases, such as gallstones, hepatitis, and other liver and bile duct diseases, can also cause this symptom.

Many of these symptoms can be caused by other conditions as well, so if you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to have them checked by a doctor so that the cause can be found and treated appropriately.

How is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?

Your doctor may use different tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer. If a person has signs and symptoms that might be caused by pancreatic cancer, certain exams and checkups will be done to find the cause.

Your doctor will ask about your medical history to learn more about your symptoms. The doctor might also ask about possible risk factors, including smoking and your family history. If the results of the exam are abnormal, your doctor will order tests to help find the problem.

Imaging tests

A type of test that uses different forms of energy, such as x-rays, ultrasound, radio waves, and radioactive substances, to create detailed pictures of areas inside the body. They may be used to help diagnose disease, plan treatment, or find out how well treatment is working. Examples of imaging tests are Computed Tomography (CT) scan, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, and Ultrasound scan.

Blood tests

Your doctor may take samples of your blood to check your general health and look for particular markers of pancreatic cancer. One tumor marker test used in pancreatic cancer is called CA19-9 (carbohydrate associated antigen). Many people with pancreatic cancer have higher levels of the markers CA19-9. Some doctors measure your levels before, during and after treatment.


Biopsy is a procedure to remove a small sample of tissue for examination under a microscope. To obtain a sample of tissue, the doctor might insert a needle through your skin and into your pancreas. This is called a fine needle aspiration (FNA). The doctor guides the needle into place using images from ultrasound or CT scans. The doctor will send the sample of cells to a laboratory to test for cancer.

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