Pancreatic cancer can cause several nonspecific symptoms as the tumor grows or as cancer spreads to other areas of the body. Early stages often have no symptoms, so a person may not realize they have pancreatic cancer until it has spread.

It is possible for a healthcare professional to identify pancreatic cancer through blood tests, imaging tests, and biopsies.

If people do experience symptoms, jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin, is usually the first sign of pancreatic cancer.

This article looks at how to tell if a person has pancreatic cancer, the symptoms by stage, how doctors diagnose it, and more.

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Pancreatic cancer grows in the pancreas. The pancreas aids in digestion by creating enzymes that help to break down foods in the digestive tract.

Cancer in the pancreas does not cause symptoms in the early stages, but it can create nonspecific symptoms as it grows and spreads.

In other words, several other conditions can cause symptoms similar to pancreatic cancer, which means a person needs to see a doctor for a diagnosis.

Pancreatic cancer does not always cause symptoms in earlier stages. However, once the tumor has grown in size or the cancer spreads outside of the pancreas, nonspecific symptoms may occur.

Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include one or more of the following:

Rarely, pancreatic cancer can cause diabetes because it destroys cells that make insulin.

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are nonspecific. This means that they may be the result of several benign, noncancerous conditions. Although these may not be cancer, they may require treatment.

A person should see a doctor if they show signs or symptoms that could indicate an issue with their pancreas.

Often, a person will not experience symptoms until either the tumor has grown in size or the cancer has spread outside of the pancreas.

One of the first symptoms of pancreatic cancer for most people is jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin or eyes. Other symptoms of jaundice include:

Another early indication of pancreatic cancer may be deep vein thrombosis, which is when a blood clot forms in a vein.

However, these symptoms are not always a result of pancreatic cancer. Anyone who experiences these symptoms should contact a doctor for further tests.

Cancer staging is very complicated, so a person should discuss their specific case with a doctor.

Generally, doctors classify cancer in stages 0–4, 0 being the least severe stage. There are additional categories within these stages to specify where exactly the cancer has spread.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) and several other organizations use the TNM staging system in addition to numbered stages. This system uses the letters T, N, and M, and numbers 0–4, to categorize the cancer’s progression.

The letters describe the following:

  • T: The size and spread of the tumor.
  • N: The number of nearby lymph nodes to which the cancer has spread.
  • M: This letter indicates whether the cancer has spread to distant organs or tissue.

The numbers show the extent of each of these. For example, people with a T1 tumor have the smallest size tumor, while people with a T4 tumor have the largest size.

Stage 1

In stage 1, a person may not experience any symptoms.

There are two substages:

  • IA: The tumor is no larger than 2 centimeters (cm). The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or to distant parts of the body.
  • IB: The tumor is between 2 cm and 4 cm in size. The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or to distant parts of the body.

Stage 2

A person with stage 2 pancreatic cancer may experience symptoms if the tumor has blocked the pancreas. Some symptoms may include jaundice and a loss of appetite.

There are two substages:

  • IIA: The tumor is bigger than 4 cm but has not spread to lymph nodes or distant organs.
  • IIB: Stage 2 B has an additional three substages relating to the size of the tumor and how it has spread:
    • T1N1M0 — The tumor is 2 cm or less in size but has spread to no more than 3 local lymph nodes. It has not spread to distant sites.
    • T2N1M0 — The tumor is between 2 cm and 4 cm in size and has spread to no more than 3 local lymph nodes with no distant spreading.
    • T3N1M0 — The tumor is larger than 4 cm in size and has spread to no more than 3 local lymph nodes with no spreading to distant areas.

Stage 3

Stage 3 pancreatic cancer can cause symptoms as the tumor has grown. They can include typical symptoms of pancreatic cancer:

  • abdominal or back pain
  • vomiting
  • nausea

Doctors may break down stage 3 on the basis of tumor size and lymph node involvement. The substages of stage 3 are:

  • T1N2M0 — The tumor is less than 2 cm and has spread to 4 or more nearby lymph nodes with no metastasis (meaning it has not spread to distant sites).
  • T2N2M0 — The tumor is between 2 cm and 4 cm and has spread to 4 or more nearby lymph nodes with no metastasis.
  • T3N2M0 — The tumor is 4 cm or more in size and has spread to 4 or more nearby lymph nodes with no metastasis.
  • T4 Any N M0 — Cancer has grown outside of the pancreas to the nearby blood vessels and may or may not have spread to lymph nodes. No metastasis has occurred.

Stage 4

Stage 4 is the most advanced stage of pancreatic cancer. It can include any size tumor and may or may not involve lymph node involvement. However, the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body.

At this stage, a person may experience one or more symptoms related to pancreatic cancer, including:

  • enlargement of the liver or gallbladder
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • deep vein thrombosis

They may also experience symptoms that relate to where the cancer has spread. For example, they may feel pain in their spine if it has spread to the bones in their back.

A person should consider seeing their doctor if they experience symptoms that may indicate a problem with their pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancer cases in the United States, so it is more likely a person will have another, noncancer-related reason for their symptoms.

At an appointment, a doctor may order several tests to help determine the cause of a person’s symptoms.

If a doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, they will likely review the person’s medical history as well as their family history. They will also conduct a physical examination and discuss a person’s symptoms.

To diagnose pancreatic cancer, a doctor may order one or more tests, which can include:

Several factors can affect a person’s overall outlook. They include:

  • stage of the cancer
  • age
  • overall health
  • response to treatment

A doctor may refer to a person’s relative survival rate. This compares people with the same stage and type of pancreatic cancer to the overall population.

A 5-year relative survival rate describes how likely a person with cancer will survive for 5 years after their diagnosis, compared to people who do not have cancer.

For pancreatic cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is:

  • Local (has not spread) — 42%
  • Regional (has spread to local lymph nodes or surrounding tissue) — 14%
  • Distant (has spread to far away organs) — 3%
  • Combined stages — 11%

A person should keep in mind that survival rates are an average, not a guarantee. A person’s doctor can provide the best estimate of their overall outlook both before and during treatment.

The following are answers to some common questions about pancreatic cancer.

Can you have pancreatic cancer for years without knowing?

Yes — some experts estimate that it can take 10–20 years for pancreatic cancer to develop.

However, once it starts to progress, a 2015 study showed that it could move rapidly from early stages to more advanced stages. As the cancer progresses, a person will likely start to experience symptoms.

Does pancreatic cancer show up in blood tests?

Pancreatic cancer creates two tumor markers, including CA 19-9 and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA).

Blood tests can reveal the presence of these tumor markers in some people. However, since they do not appear in all people with pancreatic cancer, they are generally not reliable by themselves to diagnose pancreatic cancer.

In rare cases, pancreatic cancer can cause diabetes. In these cases, a doctor can detect small changes in a person’s blood sugar, even if they do not experience symptoms.

Pancreatic cancer can cause nonspecific symptoms as it grows. Early stages may not produce any signs, but as the tumor grows, a person can develop jaundice, weight loss, loss of appetite, or other symptoms.

A person will need to see their doctor for a diagnosis. The symptoms relating to pancreatic cancer may be the result of several other conditions. A doctor will need to perform some tests to confirm a diagnosis.