According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), pancreatic cancer makes up 3 percent of cancers in the United States. However, it accounts for 7 percent of cancer deaths.

Despite being one of the deadliest cancers, the National Cancer Institute notes that its survival rate has increased steadily over the past 40 years. In 1975, the 5-year relative survival rate was only 3.1 percent. By 2013, it had risen to 10.8 percent.

People with pancreatic cancer tends to have a poorer outlook. This is because it’s difficult to catch early. But more awareness of symptoms and improvements in early diagnosis are helping improve survival rates.

Symptoms often don’t develop until the cancer has grown extensively or has spread to other organs. When symptoms do appear, they typically include jaundice, abdominal pain, and unintentional weight loss.

Read on to learn more about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and when you should visit a doctor.

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Symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa

Pancreatic cancer is often difficult to detect. The ACS notes that it doesn’t tend to cause any noticeable signs or symptoms when it’s in the early stages. By the time symptoms develop, the cancer has often grown large or spread beyond your pancreas.

Symptoms are similar in men and women. Yet men are at a slightly increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. A 2019 study found that 5.5 per 100,000 men and 4.0 per 100,000 women develop pancreatic cancer in the United States.

When symptoms do develop, they can be hard to recognize. This is because they’re often general and could have many potential causes.

According to one 2022 research article, about 70 percent of people have painless jaundice at the time of diagnosis. Jaundice is yellowing of the skin and eye whites. Unintentional weight loss occurs in about 90 percent of people and about 75 percent develop abdominal pain.

Other symptoms can include:

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are the same in women and men. But there may be differences in the way that men and women respond to treatment.

Some studies, such as the one presented in this 2021 article, suggest that female participants tend to respond better to one of the main chemotherapy regimens for pancreatic cancer, called FOLFIRINOX. However, the main drug used in the regimen — called fluorouracil — breaks down more slowly in female participants. This can have a poisonous effect.

A 2022 study found that in a group of 7,470 people with pancreatic cancer that spread to distant organs, women had a slightly better overall survival rate than men. However, this was by only 0.3 months, or around 9 days.

Having symptoms of pancreatic cancer doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. Most of its symptoms have more common causes. The National Health Service recommends talking with your doctor if:

  • you lose a noticeable amount of weight over 6 to 12 months without trying
  • you have other symptoms of pancreatic cancer that don’t get better after about 2 weeks
  • you have a condition that causes digestive symptoms that don’t get better within 2 weeks

An early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is critical for improving your outlook.

Identifying and treating cancer in the early stages gives a much better chance of survival. According to the ACS, the 5-year relative survival rate when the cancer is contained to the pancreas is 42 percent. This drops to 3 percent if it spreads to distant organs.

Some groups of people have limited access to healthcare, which may affect treatment outcomes.

Research from 2021 found that people with lower socioeconomic status have worse outcomes from pancreatic cancer due to disparities in access to healthcare. They’re also less likely to receive surgery to treat pancreatic cancer even when it’s recommended.

It’s not clear why there are differences between races. Differences in the male cellular makeup of tumors may be a factor.

According to the ACS, about a quarter of pancreatic cancers are thought to be caused by smoking cigarettes. People who smoke have twice the risk of developing pancreatic cancer as people who have never smoked.

Quitting smoking can be incredibly difficult, but it can lower your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. It may also improve many other aspects of your health. Your doctor can help you develop a plan to make quitting as easy as possible.

Learn more about how to quit smoking here.

Other risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer, according to the ACS, include:

  • Obesity. People who have obesity — defined as having a BMI over 30 — are about 20 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes. People with diabetes develop pancreatic cancer more often than people without diabetes. It’s not clear why this occurs.
  • Age. The risk of pancreatic cancer increases with age. Almost everybody who develops pancreatic cancer is over the age of 45.
  • Gender. Men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women. This might be due to higher rates of tobacco usage.
  • Family history. Pancreatic cancer sometimes runs in families. It’s thought that as many as 10 percent of pancreatic cancers are caused by gene changes passed through families.
  • Chronic pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis is long-term inflammation of your pancreas. The development of chronic pancreatitis is associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Chemical exposure. Exposure to some chemicals used in the metalworking and dry-cleaning industries may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Ethnicity. In a 2019 study, researchers compared the rates of pancreatic cancer in five ethnic groups. Higher rates were found among African Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Japanese Americans compared to European Americans and Latino Americans. One reason for this may be inequities in healthcare.

Pancreatic cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages. When symptoms do appear, they often include unintentional weight loss, jaundice, and abdominal pain.

If you develop any symptoms that can indicate pancreatic cancer, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor if they don’t go away after about 2 weeks. Receiving a diagnosis for pancreatic cancer before it spreads gives you the best chance of successful treatment.