What Causes Pancreatic Cancer? 14 Symptoms You’ll Probably Ignore

If you have indigestion and stomach ache, and maybe you’re not eating and you’re feeling a little nauseous, you might think you just have the stomach flu. And while that is by far the most likely cause, always bear in mind that they are also the symptoms of something much worse: pancreatic cancer, the UK’s fifth biggest cancer killer.

Symptoms of the disease, which is diagnosed in around 10,500 people in the UK each year, can often be mistaken for other much more benign conditions, which is why many people do not seek medical attention until the cancer is later stage and much more difficult to treat .

As a result, pancreatic cancer is the deadliest common cancer — more than half of people with the disease die within three months of diagnosis, says Pancreatic Cancer UK (PCUK, pancreaticcancer.org.uk).

PCUK Nurse, Jeni Jones, says: “The vast majority of cases are diagnosed when the cancer is already at a late stage, as the symptoms often overlap with other conditions such as indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome. If you have a symptom that persists, you should talk to a GP – it may mean you are diagnosed early.

Here are some of the symptoms that can easily be dismissed as something less serious…

1. Indigestion

Indigestion and/or heartburn can be a common symptom of pancreatic cancer, but which most people don’t necessarily think is related to a serious illness.

“Often people take over-the-counter remedies for persistent indigestion — it’s not something that automatically makes you run to the GP,” says Jones. “But there are times when it can coincide with other symptoms like pain in your stomach or back, and with various nagging things that could indicate pancreatic cancer.”

2. Abdominal or back pain

This can be anything from a dull ache to pain radiating from your abdomen to your back, Jones explains. “It could be around your bra line if you’re a woman,” she says. “It’s not low back pain, and it’s often between the shoulder blades. It may be worse after you eat something, and it doesn’t go away easily.

She says that combined abdominal and back pain is a common symptom, but some people may have one or the other.

3. Unexplained weight loss

Weight loss associated with pancreatic cancer may initially be seen when people are not really trying to lose weight and are eating relatively normally. “Maybe they’re just noticing their clothes getting loose,” says Jones.

4. Loss of appetite

Of course, losing weight is sometimes associated with loss of appetite, which is another easily ignored symptom of pancreatic cancer, at least at first. “It can range from people thinking they’re not really that hungry, to having no appetite at all and not being able to eat or feeling full after eating very little,” says Jones, explaining that such appetite changes can be because the tumor presses on the stomach, or simply reduces the ability to eat.

5. Jaundice

Jaundice is a less easily ignored symptom of pancreatic cancer, but it only occurs in people whose tumors are toward the head of the pancreas, Jones explains. “Not everyone with pancreatic cancer will get jaundice, although it’s common,” she says. “It’s a symptom of a red flag — you may notice it when the whites of your eyes turn a little yellow, before your skin starts to take on that yellow hue.”

6. Itching

Your skin can be incredibly itchy before you get jaundice because bile salts build up under the skin first. “It itches insanely,” Jones emphasizes. “I’m not talking about a little itch. It would make you scratch insanely.”

7. Changes in bowel habits

“This is a very, very important one,” Jones points out, “because there are many, many causes of diarrhea, but this is something we call steatorrhea — when there is fat in the stool, which gives it a yellowish color, which also happens with jaundice.This oily, yellowish poop that doesn’t flush away is a sure sign that something is wrong higher up in the digestive system.

“If the patient doesn’t describe the specifics of their diarrhea, it can waste time on the diagnosis, and time is of the essence.”

8. Recently diagnosed diabetes

Jones warns that a very small number of people with recently diagnosed diabetes may have pancreatic cancer because the cancer can stop the pancreas from producing enough insulin, which can lead to diabetes. She explains, “If you’re having some of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and you’re suddenly diagnosed with diabetes, that should be an alarm signal for your GP to consider whether you need a scan to check your pancreas.”

9. Nausea

Feeling sick or being sick can be another symptom of pancreatic cancer, though she points out, “Sometimes people may vomit, but that’s not as common as feeling sick.”

10. Blood clots

Jones says blood clots are an uncommon symptom of pancreatic cancer, and one that might be seen in people who are younger, for example, and who are non-smokers, so typically not at risk for clots.

“They may present with shortness of breath or a swollen leg, and go for a scan and find out they have pancreatic cancer,” she says. “It’s exceptional, but clots are a symptom and could mean there’s an underlying problem.”

11. Fatigue

Fatigue can be caused by a number of things, of course, but if you have other symptoms as well, it could be linked to pancreatic cancer, Jones warns. “If you are resting and unable to recharge your batteries, combined with some of the other symptoms, such as persistent pain or steatorrhea, that physically exhaust a person, this could be another symptom of pancreatic cancer.”

12. Fever, chills and feeling unwell

Such symptoms are uncommon symptoms of pancreatic cancer, but are not unheard of and could be related to the cancer itself, or possibly an infection related to jaundice, which Jones says needs immediate medical attention.

13. Difficulty swallowing food

“The cancer can make a person feel full, so while they think the problem is related to their swallowing, it’s often the fact that they just aren’t able to fit the food in,” says Jones, who explains While pancreatic cancer doesn’t actually cause problems with the esophagus, it can make swallowing feel abnormal.

14. Depression and anxiety

Depression and anxiety with no apparent cause is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer, Jones says. “By itself, it’s probably not something that would make you say you probably have pancreatic cancer,” she says, “but a bad mood can go hand-in-hand with pain and fatigue. Again, it’s taking these things as a whole, rather than isolated.”

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