Pancreatic Cancer

  • Medical Author:
    Francis W. Nugent, MD

    Dr. F.W. Nugent is a medical oncologist specializing in gastrointestinal cancers with a special interest in pancreatic cancer. Dr. Nugent graduated from Middlebury College with a bachelors degree in religion before graduating from Albany Medical College. He presently serves as vice-chairman of medical oncology at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts.

  • Medical Author: Keith E. Stuart, MD
    Keith E. Stuart, MD

    Dr. Keith E. Stuart is a medical oncologist specializing in the study and treatment of cancers involving the gastrointestinal tract, with a special interest in tumors involving the liver. He was educated at Harvard University (graduating magna cum laude) and Albert Einstein College of Medicine and did his medical training at the New England Deaconess Hospital.

  • Medical Author: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

View Pancreatic Cancer Slideshow

Quick GuidePancreatic Cancer Pictures Slideshow

Pancreatic Cancer Pictures Slideshow

What are pancreatic cancer symptoms and signs?

Because the pancreas lies deep in the belly in front of the spine, pancreatic cancer often grows silently for months before it is discovered. Early symptoms and/or first signs can be absent or quite subtle. More easily identifiable symptoms develop once the tumor grows large enough to press on other nearby structures, such as nerves (which causes pain), the intestines (which affects appetite and causes nausea along with weight loss), or the bile ducts (which causes jaundice or a yellowing of the skin and can cause loss of appetite and itching). Symptoms in women rarely differ from those in men. Once the tumor sheds cancer cells into the blood and lymph systems and metastasizes, additional symptoms usually arise, depending on the location of the metastasis. Frequent sites of metastasis for pancreatic cancer include the liver, the lymph nodes, and the lining of the abdomen (called the peritoneum). Unfortunately, most pancreatic cancers are found after the cancer has grown or progressed beyond the pancreas or has metastasized to other places.

In general, the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be produced by exocrine or endocrine cancer cells. Exocrine pancreatic cancer signs and symptoms can include

  • jaundice,
  • dark urine,
  • itchy skin,
  • light-colored stools,
  • pain in the abdomen or the back,
  • poor appetite and weight loss,
  • digestive problems (pale and/or greasy stools, nausea, and vomiting),
  • blood clots,
  • enlarged gallbladder.

The signs and symptoms of endocrine pancreatic cancers are often related to the excess hormones that they produce and consequently to a variety of different symptoms. Such symptoms are related to the hormones and are as follows:

  • Insulinomas: Insulin-producing tumors that lower blood glucose levels can cause low blood sugars, weakness, confusion, coma, and even death.
  • Glucagonomas: Glucagon-producing tumors can increase glucose levels and cause symptoms of diabetes (thirst, increased urination, diarrhea and skin changes, especially a characteristic rash termed necrolytic migratory erythema).
  • Gastrinomas: Gastrin-producing tumors trigger the stomach to produce too much acid, which leads to ulcers, black tarry stools, and anemia.
  • Somatostatinomas: Somatostatin-producing tumors result in other hormones being overregulated and producing symptoms of diabetes, diarrhea, belly pain, jaundice, and possibly other problems.
  • VIPomas: These tumors produce a substance called vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) that may cause severe watery diarrhea and digestive problems along with high blood glucose levels.
  • PPomas: These tumors produce pancreatic polypeptide (PP) that affects both endocrine and exocrine functions, resulting in abdominal pain, enlarged livers, and watery diarrhea.
  • Carcinoid tumors: These tumors make serotonin or its precursor, 5-HTP, and may cause the carcinoid syndrome with symptoms of flushing of the skin, diarrhea, wheezing, and a rapid heart rate that occurs episodically; eventually, a heart murmur, shortness of breath, and weakness develop due to damage to the heart valves.

Nonfunctioning neuroendocrine tumors don't make excess hormones but can grow large and spread out of the pancreas. Symptoms then can be like any of the endocrine pancreatic cancers described above.

How is the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer made?

Most people do not need to be screened for pancreatic cancer. Those who may qualify usually have a set of factors that increase the risk for pancreatic cancer, such as pancreatic cysts, first-degree relatives with pancreatic cancer, or a history of genetic syndromes associated with pancreatic cancer. Most screening tests consist of CT scans, ultrasounds, magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP), endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), or endoscopic ultrasounds.

Most people with pancreatic cancer first go to their primary-care doctor complaining of nonspecific symptoms (see symptoms section above). Some warning signs include pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, weight loss, fatigue, and increased abdominal fluid. These complaints trigger an evaluation often including a physical examination (usually normal), blood tests, X-rays, and an ultrasound. If pancreatic cancer is present, the likelihood of an ultrasound revealing an abnormality in the pancreas is about 75%. If a problem is identified or suspected, frequently a computed tomography (CT) scan is performed as the next step in the evaluation. A pancreatic mass and the suspicion of pancreatic cancer is then raised and a biopsy is performed to yield a diagnosis.

Different strategies can be used to perform a biopsy of the suspected cancer. Often, a needle biopsy of the liver through the belly wall (percutaneous liver biopsy) will be used if it appears that there has been spread of the cancer to the liver. If the tumor remains localized to the pancreas, biopsy of the pancreas directly usually is performed with the aid of a CT. A direct biopsy also can be made via an endoscope put down the throat and into the intestines. A camera on the tip of the endoscope allows the endoscopist to advance the endoscope within the intestine. An ultrasound device at the tip of the endoscope locates the area of the pancreas to be biopsied, and a biopsy needle is passed through a working channel in the endoscope to obtain tissue from the suspected cancer. Ultimately, a tissue diagnosis is the only way to make the diagnosis with certainty, and the team of doctors works to obtain a tissue diagnosis in the easiest way possible.

In addition to radiologic tests, suspicion of a pancreatic cancer can arise from the elevation of a "tumor marker," a blood test which can be abnormally high in people with pancreatic cancer. The tumor marker most commonly associated with pancreatic cancer is called the CA 19-9. It is often released into the bloodstream by pancreatic cancer cells and may be elevated in patients newly found to have pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, the CA 19-9 test is not specific for pancreatic cancer. Other cancers as well as some benign conditions can cause the CA 19-9 to be elevated. Sometimes (about 10% of the time) the CA 19-9 will be at normal levels in the blood despite a confirmed diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, so the tumor marker is not perfect. It can be helpful, however, to follow during the course of illness since its rise and fall may help guide appropriate therapy.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/29/2016

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