Pancreatic cancer occurs within the tissues of the pancreas, a vital endocrine organ located behind the stomach. The pancreas plays an essential role in digestion by producing enzymes the body needs to digest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Some symptoms of pancreatic cancer are quite difficult to spot and might escape your attention. Many are similar to those of other conditions.
The most commonly occurring sign of pancreatic cancer is a pain in the abdomen. About 70 percent of pancreatic cancer patients experience this symptom. When cancer affects the nerves and other organs near the pancreas, sensations can range from mild cramps to severe pain that often worsens when sitting or lying down. In the early stages, the discomfort can come and go throughout the day. However, as the disease progresses, it becomes more constant and increases in severity.
People with pancreatic cancer often lose weight unexpectedly and notice changes in appetite and typical eating patterns. The individual may feel abnormally full, even after eating small amounts, which can lead him to eat less than normal. Pancreatic cancer can affect the ability of the pancreas to produce digestive enzymes that help digest food, especially those high in fat. As a result, the body can’t digest food properly and is unable to absorb all of the nutrients. Over time, this can result in significant weight loss.
Jaundice is the medical term for yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. It occurs in about half of pancreatic cancer cases. Other signs of jaundice include dark urine, pale stools, and itchy skin. Jaundice is a direct result of a build-up of bilirubin, a by-product of red blood cells. Bilirubin is usually present in the bloodstreams of all healthy people, but growing tumors can block the bile ducts, causing it to build up to extreme levels. The condition does not cause any pain, but it can be indicative of pancreatic cancer or another disease.
Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting can occur throughout all stages of pancreatic cancer. A pancreatic tumor can block the bile duct or press on the duodenum, affecting digestion. It may also cause inflammation. Both of these effects can lead to chemical imbalances in the body and result in nausea.
One of the common conditions associated with pancreatic cancer is steatorrhea, a situation in which stools become large, pale, and oily. They also tend to float, have a strong odor, and contain undigested food. This condition affects the production of enzymes needed to digest specific nutrients, especially fat. Undigested food passing quickly through the body can also cause diarrhea and weight loss.
Sometimes, the first clue that a person has pancreatic cancer is the development of blood clots in large veins, typically in the leg. This is called deep vein thrombosis or DVT. Symptoms can include pain, swelling, redness, and warmth in the affected area. Sometimes, a piece of the clot can break off and travel to the lungs, making it hard to breathe and possibly causing chest pain.
In some cases, pancreatic cancer can lead to diabetes. The pancreas is responsible for the production of insulin, which regulates the amount of sugar in the blood. This process becomes disrupted during the development of pancreatic cancer, as cancer diminishes the abilities of insulin-making cells. Symptoms can include insatiable thirst and hunger, as well as an urge to urinate frequently. Blood tests can detect small changes in blood sugar levels to catch and address diabetes before it fully takes hold.
Fatigue can be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer, resulting in reduced energy levels, lack of focus, and slower mental processes. Doctors do not yet know exactly what causes this fatigue, but it is likely related to the body’s efforts to fight off cancer. Pain can also make it difficult for people with pancreatic cancer to sleep, which can also contribute to fatigue. Side effects from chemotherapy and other treatments likely also play a role.
Many patients report mood changes and bouts of depression before receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Mild to severe depression can often present itself in the early stages of various cancers. It is important for anyone experiencing extensive or unrelenting bouts of depression to speak to a professional.
Imaging tests such as computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can alert doctors to the presence of symptoms like an enlarged gallbladder. If a pancreatic tumor blocks a bile duct, this can cause bile to build up in the gallbladder, leading to enlargement and inflammation of the organ. As it progresses, a palpable lump may develop under the rib cage on the right side.