Pancreatic cancer has the best treatment outcomes when it’s diagnosed in the early stages. But early pancreatic cancer is generally without symptoms, and the first warning signs of pancreatic cancer often overlap with other, less serious, conditions.

This means that many people with pancreatic cancer don’t get medical help or receive a diagnosis until the cancer has spread.

Knowing the warning symptoms of pancreatic cancer can help you see a doctor or healthcare professional as soon as possible and get a diagnosis and begin treatment before your cancer has a chance to spread.

In this article, we take a closer look at the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer and when to see a doctor.

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancerShare on Pinterest
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

The difficult thing about pancreatic cancer is that people in the early stages of this cancer may not experience any symptoms at all. Sometimes, even later stages can be easy to mistake for less serious conditions.

Once symptoms appear, they typically include:

  • jaundice
  • dark urine
  • loss of appetite
  • sudden and unintentional weight loss
  • nausea and vomiting
  • itchy skin
  • stomach pain

See a doctor if you experience symptoms for more than 1 or 2 weeks

It’s important to see a doctor if you’ve experienced any symptoms of pancreatic cancer for more than 1 or 2 weeks. Although these symptoms can also be caused by other, less serious, conditions, it’s a good idea to have them checked out.

Was this helpful?


Jaundice is the medical term for a yellowing of your skin and eyes. It’s often one of the first symptoms of pancreatic cancer. It’s also associated with more common conditions such as gallstones and hepatitis.

In pancreatic cancer, jaundice occurs because a tumor is blocking your bile duct. Your liver’s bile duct is what allows it to release bile and a liver function byproduct called bilirubin. When your bile duct is blocked, bilirubin builds up. This causes jaundice.

Skin itching and dark urine

The buildup of bilirubin can also cause dark-colored urine and skin itching. The blockage of the bile duct can also lead to a change in the frequency or consistency of your bowel movements.

Nausea and vomiting

Pancreatic tumors can grow near the end of your stomach. This can block the path of food making its way through your digestive system. The blockage can lead to nausea and vomiting.

Stomach pain

Pancreatic tumors can press on nearby organs, causing pain. This is most common in your stomach, but back pain can also occur. Stomach or back pain is generally a symptom of a tumor that has grown large and is more likely to be caused by other conditions. But it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor about any pain you experience.

Pancreatitis vs. pancreatic cancer

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. Acute pancreatitis is a short-term infection. Chronic pancreatitis refers to a long-term inflammation that leads to scarring and severe pain.

It can be very difficult to tell the difference between chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer without a full diagnosis from a doctor. Early symptoms of pancreatitis include:

Was this helpful?

There are several known risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Having risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll get pancreatic cancer, but it does increase the chances. Risk factors include:

  • Genetics: Pancreatic cancer appears to run in some families. It’s estimated that about as many as 10% of people with pancreatic cancer have an inherited gene mutation. The exact mutations that cause pancreatic cancer are still being studied.
  • Age: Age increases your risk of pancreatic cancer. Most people are 55 years or older when they receive a diagnosis.
  • Smoking: Smoking is associated with a higher risk of many types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes: Type 2 diabetes has been shown to increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Obesity: There’s a link between higher body weight and pancreatic cancer.
  • Exposure to workplace chemicals: Exposure to chemicals used in industries such as metalworking can increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Sex: People assigned male at birth have a higher rate of pancreatic cancer than people assigned female at birth. But people assigned male at birth also have a higher rate of risk factors, such as smoking and metalwork.
  • Ethnicity: The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network believes Black Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than any other racial or ethnic group. And according to the National Cancer Institute SEER data, Black Americans have the highest incidence rate of pancreatic cancer in the United States. This disparity is likely due to higher rates of risk factors, such as diabetes mellitus, among the Black American population, as well as access issues to high-quality health care.

There are currently no standard screening recommendations for pancreatic cancer. Several types of cancer, such as breast, colon, and lung cancer, have screenings available, but no routine screening exists for pancreatic cancer.

There are a few blood tests you can take if you’re at high risk of pancreatic cancer, including the GRAIL Galleri test (which only finds exocrine pancreatic cancer) and the Immunovia Inc. IMMray PanCan-d test.

But these tests aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or covered by any insurance plan. You’ll also need a doctor’s order to take to them.

If you’re concerned about your risk of pancreatic cancer, ask a doctor for recommendations.

What is the first common symptom of pancreatic cancer?

Jaundice is the most common early symptom of pancreatic cancer. There are a number of other conditions that can cause jaundice, and this symptom doesn’t always mean you have pancreatic cancer. But it’s important to see a doctor right away if you do experience jaundice.

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

A doctor will run several tests if they suspect you have pancreatic cancer. This will likely include:

  • Liver function tests: Liver function tests are blood tests that measure how well your liver is working. They can help rule out other conditions, such as hepatitis, that could be causing your symptoms.
  • CT scan: A CT scan can create three-dimensional (3-D) images of your pancreas so that doctors can see tumors. This can help doctors see the size and location of your tumor.
  • MRI: An MRI can add clarity and detail to the information provided by a CT scan.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): This test uses a small tube called an endoscope and ultrasound waves to create visual images of your pancreas and digestive tract. You’ll be under anesthesia for this test.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): This test uses a contrast dye so that doctors can see how bile moves through your pancreatic ducts.
  • Biopsy: A small piece of pancreatic tissue is removed and examined in a lab. This is generally done at the same time as an EUS or ERCP. A biopsy is the only way to confirm a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

Is pancreatitis a risk factor for pancreatic cancer?

Chronic pancreatitis is considered a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. But smoking is a risk factor for both chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

At this time, it’s unclear if smoking is the underlying risk factor and not the chronic pancreatitis. More research on this topic is still needed.

What’s the outlook for people with pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is most treatable and has the best outcomes when it’s diagnosed early. But it can be difficult to catch pancreatic cancer in the early stages.

The overall 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 11%. But this is based on data taken between 2011 and 2017. Treatments for pancreatic cancer are continuously improving, and current survival rates are likely higher.

Individual survival rates will depend on factors such as age, stage at diagnosis, response to treatment, and overall health.

Pancreatic cancer has the best treatment options and the highest survival rates when it’s diagnosed early. Knowing the symptoms can help you catch pancreatic cancer as early as possible and start treatment before the cancer spreads.

One of the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer is jaundice. Although jaundice can be a symptom of many other conditions, it’s important to always see a doctor about this symptom as soon as possible.

Diagnostic testing can help determine the cause of jaundice and any other symptoms you may be having. Catching whatever condition you may have early can provide you with the most effective treatment options.