Pancreatic cancer

The pancreas is a large gland in the gut, located behind the stomach, which produces digestive juices (enzymes) to digest food, and hormones that regulate blood sugar. Cancer in the pancreas doesn't usually cause any symptoms in the early stages. This can make pancreatic cancer difficult to diagnose.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

This information is for the most common type of pancreatic cancer, known as pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. Rarer types of pancreatic cancer may behave and be treated differently.

In the early stages, a tumour in the pancreas doesn't usually cause any symptoms, which can make it difficult to diagnose.

The first noticeable symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often:

  • pain in the back or stomach area – which may come and go at first and is often worse when you lie down or after you've eaten
  • unexpected weight loss
  • jaundice – (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes) - it also causes your pee (urine) to be dark yellow or orange and your poo (faeces) to be pale-coloured

Other possible symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

You may also develop symptoms of diabetes if you have pancreatic cancer. This is because it can interfere with both the production of insulin, and its effectiveness in lowering blood sugar.

When to see your GP

You should contact your GP if you're concerned about the symptoms above, or if these symptoms start suddenly.

It's important to remember that these symptoms can be caused by many different conditions, and aren't usually the result of cancer.

Your GP will first ask about your general health and then carry out a physical examination.

If your GP thinks it could be pancreatic cancer, you'll usually be referred to a specialist at a hospital for further investigation, involving scans and tests.

Causes of pancreatic cancer

It's not fully understood what causes pancreatic cancer. A number of risk factors for developing the condition have been identified.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • age – in Northern Ireland almost 87 per cent of patients diagnosed are over the age of 60, and rates are highest among men and women aged 80-89
  • being very overweight
  • smoking – around one in three cases is associated with using cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco
  • having a history of certain health conditions – such as diabetes, chronic pancreatitis (long-term inflammation of the pancreas), stomach ulcer and Helicobacter pylori infection (a stomach infection)

In about 1 in 10 cases, pancreatic cancer is inherited from a person's parents. Certain genes also increase your chances of getting pancreatitis, which in turn increases your risk of developing cancer of the pancreas.

Treating pancreatic cancer

Cancer of the pancreas is difficult to treat. It rarely causes any symptoms in the early stages, so it's often not detected until the cancer is fairly advanced.

If the tumour is large, treating the cancer will be more difficult.

If you've been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, your treatment will depend on the type and location of your cancer, and how far it's advanced.

The health professional looking after your care will discuss treatment options with you.

The three main treatments for pancreatic cancer are:

Some types of pancreatic cancer only require one form of treatment. Others may require two types of treatment or a combination of all three.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published April 2018

This page is due for review August 2021

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