What causes pancreatic cancer? 14 symptoms you will most likely ignore
If you have indigestion and stomach pain, and maybe you’ve stopped eating and feel a little sick, you might think you just have a stomach bug. And while this is by far the most likely cause, always be aware that they are also symptoms of something much worse – the fifth biggest cancer killer in the UK, pancreatic cancer.
Symptoms The disease, which is diagnosed in around 10,500 people in the UK each year, can often be mistaken for other, far more benign conditions, which is why many people do not seek medical attention until the cancer is in its later stages and is far more difficult to treat.
As a result, pancreatic cancer is the deadliest common cancer – more than half of those affected die within three months of diagnosis, according to Pancreatic Cancer UK (PCUK, pancreaticcancer.org.uk).
PCUK specialist nurse, Jeni Jones, says: “The vast majority of cases are diagnosed when the cancer is already at a late stage, as symptoms often overlap with other conditions such as indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome. If you have a persistent symptom, you should talk to your GP – it could mean you’ve been diagnosed early.”
Here are some symptoms that are easy to dismiss as less serious…
Indigestion and/or heartburn can be common symptoms of pancreatic cancer – but ones that most people wouldn’t necessarily think are related to serious disease.
“A lot of the time people can just take over-the-counter medicines for persistent indigestion – it’s not something that will automatically make you run to the GP,” says Jones. “But there are times when it can be associated with other symptoms like stomach or back pain, and a few little things that happen, that could point to pancreatic cancer.”
2. Stomach or back pain
It can be anything from a dull ache to pain radiating from the abdomen around the back, Jones explains. “Maybe it’s around the bra if you’re a woman,” she says. “It’s not lower back pain, it’s often between the shoulder blades. It can be worse after you eat something, and it usually doesn’t go away easily.”
She says that combined abdominal and back pain is a fairly common symptom, but some people may have only 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. “They might just notice that their clothes are getting loose,” says Jones.
4. Loss of appetite
Weight loss is sometimes naturally associated with loss of appetite, another symptom of pancreatic cancer that is easy to ignore, at least initially. “It can range from people thinking they’re not really that hungry, to having no appetite at all and not being able to face food, or feeling full after very little food,” says Jones, who explains that such changes in appetite can be caused by a tumor presses on the stomach or just reduces the ability to eat.
Jaundice is a symptom of pancreatic cancer that is harder to ignore, but it usually only occurs in people whose tumor is toward the head of the pancreas, Jones explains. “Not everyone with pancreatic cancer will get jaundice, although it is very common,” she says. “It’s a red flag symptom — you might notice it when the whites of your eyes turn a little yellow, before your skin starts to take on that yellow tint.”
Your skin may be incredibly itchy before you develop jaundice, as bile salts first build up under the skin. “It’s incredibly itchy,” Jones emphasizes. “I’m not talking about a little itch, it would make you scratch to a crazy level.”
7. Changes in bowel habits
“This is very, very important,” Jones stresses, “because there are many, many causes of diarrhea, but this is something we call steatorrhea—when there is fat in the stool, which makes it yellowish, which also happens with jaundice. This greasy, yellowish poop that won’t flush 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, they can lose time for diagnosis, and time is of the essence.”
8. Recently diagnosed diabetes
Jones cautions that a very small number of people with newly diagnosed diabetes may have pancreatic cancer, because cancer can stop the pancreas from producing enough insulin, which can lead to diabetes. She explains: “If you have some of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and are suddenly diagnosed with diabetes, then this should be a red flag for your GP to consider whether you should have a pancreatic scan.”
Feeling sick or nauseated can be another symptom of pancreatic cancer, though she points out, “Sometimes people can vomit, but it’s not as common as feeling sick.”
10. Blood clots
Jones says that blood clots are an uncommon symptom of pancreatic cancer and might be seen in people who, for example, are younger and non-smokers and therefore would not normally be at risk for clots.
“They could have shortness of breath or a swollen leg, then go for a scan and find out they have pancreatic cancer,” she says. “It’s exceptional, but clots are a symptom and can lead to the fact that there’s an underlying problem.”
Fatigue can be caused by a number of things, of course, but if you have other symptoms, it could be related to pancreatic cancer, Jones warns. “If you’re resting and can’t recharge your batteries, combined with some other symptoms, like constant pain or steatorrhea, which are physically draining, that could be another symptom of pancreatic cancer.”
12. Fever, chills and feeling bad
Such symptoms are uncommon symptoms of pancreatic cancer, but they are not unheard of and may be related to the cancer itself or perhaps an infection associated with jaundice, which Jones says will require immediate medical attention.
13. Difficulty swallowing food
“Cancer can make a person feel full, so even though they think the problem is swallowing, it’s often the fact that they just can’t get food in,” says Jones, who explains that pancreatic cancer doesn’t actually cause problems with the esophagus, it can just make swallowing unusual. .
14. Depression and anxiety
Depression and anxiety without any apparent cause is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer, says Jones. “In and of itself, it’s probably not something that would make you say you probably have pancreatic cancer,” she says, “but low mood can go hand in hand with pain and fatigue. Again, it takes these things as a whole, not individually.”