Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer often develops silently.

Because the pancreas is nestled among other organs far inside the abdominal cavity, doctors usually can't feel a growing tumor.

Symptoms — particularly in the early stages — often aren't intense. When they do appear, the cancer is often advanced.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Signs

Symptoms and signs of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Blood clots
  • Change in stools
  • Trouble digesting food 
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sudden onset of diabetes
  • Unexplained and rapid weight loss
  • Upper abdominal pain or middle back pain

Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors

Risk factors increase the chance of cancer development.

In general, men are more likely than women to get pancreatic cancer.

Age is also a risk factor for pancreatic cancer:

  • 90 percent of people are older than 55.
  • 70 percent are older than 65.

Genetic risk factors include a family history of pancreatic cancer or inherited conditions like:

  • Hereditary pancreatitis
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome

Individual risk factors can include:

  • Pancreatitis
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Smoking

In some cases, people can change their habits to reduce or eliminate individual risk factors.

Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis and Staging

Your care team at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center will conduct tests to classify the type and stage of your disease.

Staging is a process that determines the spread of the cancer cells within and around the pancreas.

Diagnosis and staging of pancreatic cancer usually happen at the same time.

Tests and procedures to diagnose pancreatic cancer may include:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography
  • Endoscopic ultrasound
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • Needle biopsy
  • Physical exam
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Ultrasound

Staging ensures that every member of the care team understands the exact type, size, location, and spread of the cancer.

The stages of pancreatic cancer are:

  • Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ) — abnormal cells exist in the lining of the pancreas. These cells have the potential to form cancer and spread throughout the pancreas.
  • Stage I — cancer is present in the pancreas only.
    • Stage IA describes a tumor that is two centimeters or smaller.
    • Stage IB describes a tumor larger than two centimeters.
  • Stage II — cancer has spread beyond the pancreas.
    • Stage IIA, cancer affects nearby tissues and organs but not lymph nodes.
    • Stage IIB, cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage III — cancer has spread to blood vessels and possibly also to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV — cancer has spread to organs and tissues far away from the pancreas, such as the lungs.

Contact Us About Pancreatic Cancer

To learn more about pancreatic cancer symptoms or care, contact UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at 412-647-2811.