The early signs of pancreatic cancer are important to be aware of because many patients don’t confirm their diagnosis until the disease is in advanced stages. Early-stage cases of pancreatic cancer are often painless and do not cause symptoms until the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas. The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen that aids in digestion and blood sugar regulation. There will be an estimated 60,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer in 2021, occurring in men more often than women.
Some patients do not experience symptoms at all in the early stages of pancreatic cancer. There is a higher likelihood of successful treatment when pancreatic cancer is in early stages. However, most cases are diagnosed when in advanced stages.
Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Recognizing early signs of pancreatic cancer can help prevent further metastasis and spread of the disease before treatment is started. Symptoms often appear earlier if the cancer begins in the head of the pancreas compared to the body and the tail. If you experience any of these signs, you should see your doctor to rule out any other possible cause of symptoms. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are commonly seen in other diseases and illnesses.
Early signs of pancreatic cancer include:
- Back or abdominal pain
- Jaundice occurs when ducts are blocked, and bile builds up; whites of the eyes and the skin appear yellow.
- Nausea or vomiting
- Bloating when eating small amounts of food
Late-stage symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
- Change in stool or dark colored urine
- Weight loss
- Elevated blood sugar levels
- Persistent fatigue
Staging Pancreatic Cancer
If early signs of pancreatic cancer are seen, tests will be done by your doctor to confirm the diagnosis such as an MRI, PET or CT scan, ultrasound, or blood chemistry study. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, additional testing is done to stage the disease.
The stages of pancreatic cancer are defined as:
- Stage I: The cancer is only found in the pancreas and the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller
- Stage II: The tumor has spread to 1 to 3 nearby lymph nodes and/or is larger than 4 centimeters
- Stage III: The tumor has spread to 4 or more lymph nodes, or to nearby blood vessels
- Stage IV: The cancer has spread to other parts of the body, often in the lungs or liver
Surgery is often only available to patients in early stages when the disease has not spread to the tissues and blood vessels surrounding the pancreas. Other treatment options for pancreatic cancer are radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies. Clinical trials evaluate the latest therapies in cancer research for their safety and effectiveness. These trials are available for enrollment to eligible pancreatic cancer patients.