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Pancreatic cancer is the deadliest form of cancer, claiming the lives of 95 percent of those diagnosed with it within five years.. How do we detect this malicious form of cancer and what are pancreatic cancer symptoms?

In a 2020 Q&A about pancreatic cancer, Dr. Joseph Kim shared illuminating statistics on pancreatic cancer, risk factors involved, and treatment methods. Let's expand on Dr. Kim's outline and learn more about pancreatic cancer symptoms.

Detecting Pancreatic Cancer

The biggest issue in diagnosing and treating pancreatic cancer is that symptoms rarely show up early on. This unknown factor puts both patients and doctors at a significant disadvantage.

“A challenging aspect of pancreatic cancer is that, while in its earliest (and most curable) stage, it's often asymptomatic and hard to detect in patients,” says Dr. Zubin Bamboat, Director of Surgical Oncology at Summit Health. “As such, we remain vigilant for any subtle and telltale pancreatic cancer symptoms.”

By the time the pancreas shows things like exocrine tumors or other cancer cells, they have often grown to unmanageable sizes, making treatment more difficult.

What Are Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms?

An efficient way to detect pancreatic cancer is by familiarizing yourself with the symptoms. Here are the most common.


Jaundice, a general yellowing of the skin and eyes, is an obvious sign that there is an issue with the liver and pancreas. A person experiences jaundice symptoms when bile, produced by the liver, can no longer make its way through the bile duct.

Bile contains a substance called bilirubin, which, when built up into significant amounts, results in what we know as jaundice. Bilirubin is both brown and yellow, causing the skin and eyes to turn yellow.

Since the liver, bile duct, and pancreas are close in proximity, when pancreatic cancer spreads, the liver is often affected.

High bilirubin levels, known as hyperbilirubinemia, in the body can manifest the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Vomiting
  • Darkened urine
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea

Blood Clots

Along with jaundice, blood clots (or deep vein thrombosis) can be an early warning sign of cancer. Painful swelling, inflammation, and redness are all signs and symptoms of blood clots.

Deep vein thrombosis is extremely dangerous, with parts of the blood clot making their way to the lungs. Any major issue with the pancreas, including pancreatitis, can cause a higher blood clot rate forming in the body.

Gallbladder and Liver Issues

Since the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder are closely located , the gallbladder and liver can grow in size when the pancreas is adversely affected. An enlarging of either (or both) the liver and gallbladder is due to severe bile build-up, not unlike jaundice.

Doctors can luckily detect this through physical exams or other tests like an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography. This is a specific test to see if there are any blockages in the bile duct and uses an endoscope.

Weight Loss and Wasting

Weight loss is a common symptom of cancer. When the pancreas is infected, people quite often lose their appetites, leading to weight loss.

This unexpected weight loss may be alarming and can lead to wasting, where muscle tissue is also adversely affected.

Other common forms of cancer can also cause weight loss:

  • Lung
  • Stomach
  • Esophagus

Patients also experience weight loss from pancreatic cancer treatment itself. Lacking an appetite and unintended weight loss are not uncommon side effects of these treatments.

Adult Onset Diabetes

Another symptom that can be an early sign of pancreatic cancer is adult-onset diabetes. The pancreas produces insulin, and pancreatic cancer can make the body resistant to insulin, manifesting in adult-onset diabetes. Another warning sign is worsening diabetes in those over the age of 55. However, it is important to remember that most people who develop diabetes do not develop pancreatic cancer.

How Do Doctors Diagnose Pancreatic Cancer?

If an individual suspects that they exhibit signs of pancreatic cancer, they can schedule an appointment with a Summit Health gastroenterologist who can evaluate the symptoms and decide whether  blood tests or imaging studies like a CT scan or MRI are needed.  

Final Thoughts on Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Although it's one of the most severe forms of cancer, we're here to help you detect early symptoms and start an effective treatment plan. Surgery provides patients with the only chance of cure. At Summit Health, our pancreatic surgeons perform a high volume of these complex surgeries. Information on our pancreas surgeons can be accessed here: Zubin Bamboat MD, FACS, Joseph Kim, MD.

Visit our Gastroenterology page, where you can receive further information on our services and explore our talented team of gastroenterologists.