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8 Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms You’ve Probably Been Ignoring

Symptoms often aren’t noticeable until the disease is in the advanced stages, but if you notice any of the following signs and symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer, talk to your doctor.

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Your skin looks yellow

“Jaundice is one of the clearest symptoms of pancreatic cancer,” says Christopher J. DiMaio, MD, a gastroenterologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Often, patients feel fine until one day a friend notices their eyes look yellow, then they go to the doctor and find they have advanced pancreatic cancer.” Cancers that start near the head of the pancreas can block the bile duct, preventing bile from reaching the intestines, where it helps break down fats and eventually leaves the body in the stool. This bile builds up and causes jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin or eyes, he explains. One of the other pancreatic cancer symptoms? These are other cancer symptoms women should never ignore and cancer signs men should never ignore.

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You experience abdominal or back pain

Place the tip of your finger on the top of your abdomen, just below the breastbone. Then imagine your finger pointing straight back through your body to the spine. That’s a common location that pancreatic cancer patients report feeling pain, says Dr. DiMaio. “The pain is hard to describe, but a dull, internal pain in this area, or radiating around the sides of your abdomen to the back, is a tip-off and you should get it checked out,” he says. Cancers that start in the body or tail of the pancreas can press on nearby organs, causing pain. If the cancer spreads to the nerves surrounding the pancreas, this can cause back pain. Make sure you know the 8 signs your back pain is actually an emergency.

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You have dark urine or greasy stools

If your urine starts to look dark (brown or rust-colored), this may be one of the pancreatic cancer symptoms you should notice. As bilirubin, a substance made by the liver that partly makes up bile, builds up in the blood, urine darkens. Clay-colored or greasy stools can also be symptoms of pancreatic cancer, as they can be caused by cancer blocking the bile duct, says Dr. DiMaio. Dark urine and greasy stools can also be signs of other conditions, including hepatitis and certain blood disorders. Here are 10 things your pee reveals about your health (besides dehydration).

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You experience nausea or vomiting

Cancer pressing on the far end of the stomach can cause a partial blockage, making it hard for food to get through. According to the American Cancer Society, this can cause nausea, vomiting, and pain that tends to be worse after eating. All of these things, therefore, could be symptoms of pancreatic cancer. As far as what not to believe when it comes to cancer, here are the rampant cancer myths that need to die.

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You develop pancreatitis

Pancreatic cancer is one of the 7 cancers that are hard to detect early, but “unexplained or chronic pancreatitis can be caused by a small tumor on the pancreas,” says Dr. DiMaio. Though pancreatitis is more commonly caused by gallstones, new medications, or alcohol abuse, if you develop the condition and don’t have any of those risk factors, it could be something more serious, he says.

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You have poor oral hygiene

If your mouth is a mess of bad breath, inflamed gums, or loose teeth, it could be more than bad hygiene. “Pancreatic cancer patients are known to be susceptible to gum disease, cavities, and poor oral health in general,” according to researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center, who conducted a study examining mouth bacteria of pancreatic cancer patients versus people without. They found that the presence of the same bacteria that has been tied to dental diseases like periodontitis (inflammation of the gums) put participants at a 59 percent greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer than those whose mouths didn’t contain the bacteria. Here are 10 other illnesses dentists find first.

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You’ve recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes

A diabetes diagnosis doesn’t mean you’ll get pancreatic cancer, but it is associated with an increased risk. One Mayo Clinic study found that 40 percent of pancreatic patients were diagnosed with diabetes in the months before their cancer diagnosis. The pancreas is responsible for creating insulin, so the early stages of the tumor may affect the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin, causing diabetes, Dr. DiMaio explains. Meet the doctor who’s beating diabetes one patient at a time.

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You have unexplained weight loss

If you suddenly have little to no appetite, or if you’re losing weight without changing your diet or exercise regimen, see your doctor; these are some of the common pancreatic cancer symptoms, says Dr. DiMaio. Now, find out what oncologists do every day to avoid cancer.

Medically reviewed by Russell H. Greenfield, MD, on August 14, 2019

Alyssa Jung
Alyssa Jung is a writer and editor with extensive experience creating health and wellness content that resonates with readers. She freelanced for local publications in Upstate New York and spent three years as a newspaper reporter before moving to New York City to pursue a career in magazines. She is currently Senior Associate Editor at Prevention magazine and a contributor to Previously she worked at Reader's Digest as an editor, writer, and health fact checker.