Pancreatic cancer - what are the signs and symptoms?

4 minute read time.
Pancreatic cancer - what are the signs and symptoms?

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Around 10,500 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the UK each year[i]. In this blog, Content Channel Editor Tania, talks about some of the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is part of the digestive system. It makes digestive juices called enzymes, and hormones including insulin. Hormones act as chemical messengers in the body. They control how different organs work.

The image shows the human body from the chest down to the upper thighs. The pancreas is shown in relation to nearby organs in the tummy (abdomen). In the upper right of the abdomen is the liver. Below the liver are the gall bladder and bile duct. Behind and to the left of the liver is the bottom of the gullet (oesophagus) and the top of the stomach. The stomach curves round to the right where it joins to the small bowel. Just behind the stomach and close to where it joins the small bowel, is the pancreas.

There are different types of pancreatic cancer. These are described based on:·       where they are in the pancreas·       the type of cell they start from. Cancer can happen in any part of the pancreas. But around 6 out of 10 pancreatic cancers (60%) start in the head of the pancreas. What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

While pancreatic cancer may not cause symptoms for a long time, it is important to be aware of what these are so you can get any possible symptoms checked by your doctor as soon as possible.

These are some of the possible symptoms to be aware of:

Pain and discomfort
This often begins in the upper part of the tummy (abdomen). Sometimes it spreads to the back. The pain may come and go, or it may be there all the time. It may feel worse after eating or when you are lying down. It might feel better when you are sitting up or bending forward.
Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)
Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes can be a symptom of jaundice. Depending on where the cancer is in the pancreas it may block the bile duct.  This means you may develop jaundice.

Jaundice may be caused by several conditions. Pancreatic cancer is not the most common cause of jaundice. Other conditions that affect the liver and bile duct, are more common.

Weight loss
Weight loss is a common symptom. It may happen even if you have not reduced the amount you eat.
Feeling and being sick
If the pancreas is inflamed and swollen, or you have jaundice, you may feel sick. You may also be sick (vomit).
Other possible symptoms
Pancreatic cancer can cause other symptoms, such as:
  • losing your appetite
  • indigestion
  • feeling bloated after meals
  • diarrhoea or changing bowel habits
  • feeling very tired
  • a new diagnosis of diabetes or if you already had diabetes, it is becoming more difficult to control.
  • blood clots in the leg (deep vein thrombosis or DVT) or the lungs (pulmonary embolus or PE).

These symptoms can be caused by other conditions. But it is important to have them checked by your GP as soon as you can.

Visiting your doctor if you have symptoms
Your GP will examine you and look at your eyes and the colour of your skin. This is to check if you have jaundice. They may test your urine (pee) for bile and take some blood samples. They may also feel your tummy (abdomen) for any swelling in the liver area. They will ask if you have noticed any changes in your poo (stools) or weight.

If your GP thinks your symptoms could be caused by cancer, they will refer you to a specialist doctor at a hospital. At the hospital you will have more tests to find out the cause of your symptoms and how they can be treated.

If you are aged 40 or older and have jaundice, you should see a specialist within 2 weeks.

If you are aged 60 or older, your doctor may refer you urgently. They may arrange an urgent CT scan or ultrasound within 2 weeks.

More information and support

We have more information about pancreatic cancer,  its symptoms and how it can be treated on our website.

We understand that showing any symptoms that may be a sign of cancer is worrying. The most important thing is to speak to your GP as soon as possible. We are also here if you need someone to talk to. You can:

Pancreatic Cancer UK also provides information and support to people affected by pancreatic cancer.


[i] Pancreatic cancer incidence statistics | Cancer Research UK

  • I was seen by a trainee Dr at my doctors surgery and she diagnosed me, got bloods taken (after consultation with senior doctor) and I was admitted that night into hospital for further tests etc.  So glad I rang up for an appointment and managed to get a face to face appointment.  Couldn’t have surgery as cancer had spread but started chemo next week with the aim of shrinking the tumour that is on a vein and then could have Whipple surgery if Consultant thinks it’s possible.  Just have to try to be positive and get on with each day and hopefully will get some quality time with my partner..