Signs of pancreatic cancer + ways to reduce your risk

Person having stomach ache, painful area highlighted in red

Although pancreatic cancer is considered rare, it’s the third-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. In recent years, it has taken the lives of Jeopardy! host Alex Trebec, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin.

About 62,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, according to an American Cancer Society estimate. And it’s estimated that nearly 50,000 people will die because it is often diagnosed in the later stages, when fewer treatment options are available.

Dr. Daniel Cusator, a medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, explains why your pancreas is so important and how you can watch for symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

Why you need a healthy pancreas

Dr. Cusator: Your pancreas has two primary and critical functions:

  1. First, it produces enzymes that helps with digestion.
  2. Second, it secretes the hormones insulin and glucagon into your bloodstream to help regulate your blood sugar levels.

And as with other organs in your body, things can go wrong. For example, if your pancreas doesn’t secrete enough insulin in your bloodstream to help your body process sugar, your blood sugar levels remain at elevated levels. As a result, you can develop diabetes.

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You can also develop inflammation of your pancreas. This causes a condition called acute pancreatitis. Over time, acute pancreatitis can also lead to chronic pancreatitis. This usually causes pain in the upper abdomen, although some people don’t experience much, if any, pain. Gallstones and a history of heavy alcohol use tend to increase your chances of developing pancreatitis, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

Then there’s pancreatic cancer, of which there are two main types:

  1. exocrine pancreatic cancer
  2. neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer

The most common kind of pancreatic cancer is called pancreatic adenocarcinoma, which is a type of exocrine pancreatic cancer. It accounts for about 90% of all pancreatic cancers.

Jaundice and 7 other signs of pancreatic cancer

Dr. Cusator: One of the biggest challenges with pancreatic cancer is that it’s hard to diagnose early. Some symptoms can be fairly non-specific. You might not initially suspect pancreatic cancer because many of the symptoms are shared with other common health conditions. But here are the signs that you want to watch for.


Because pancreatic cancer tends to spread to the nearby liver, it often causes the symptoms of jaundice. As a result, you may develop a yellowing of your skin, the whites of your eyes, even your lips, as well as dark-colored urine, light-colored stools, and itchy skin.

Other signs to watch for include:

  1. Pain in your abdomen. The pain can sometimes radiate to your lower back, too.
  2. Nausea and vomiting. If the cancer puts pressure on your stomach, it’s hard for food to make it through.
  3. Loss of appetite and weight loss. If you’re experiencing nausea and vomiting, you may not want to eat, which can result in weight loss.
  4. Blood clots in a large vein. Often this occurs in a leg, a condition called deep vein thrombosis, and can cause pain, redness, swelling, and warmth.
  5. Diabetes. Pancreatic cancer can destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, leading to diabetes.
  6. Enlarged gallbladder. If the cancer blocks the common bile duct, bile may build up in the gallbladder, causing it to swell.
  7. Enlarged liver. If the cancer spreads to the nearby liver, the liver may become larger, too.

Know your risk factors

Dr. Cusator: Pancreatic cancer may be relatively rare now, but the death rate is on the rise. It’s predicted to become the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. over the next decade. Unfortunately, experts don’t know for sure what causes pancreatic cancer. Although we do know that people with chronic pancreatitis are at increased risk. Since there’s no screening test available for pancreatic cancer, the most important things you can do are:

  1. lead a healthy lifestyle,
  2. be aware of your risk factors, and
  3. watch out for any developing symptoms.

There are two categories of risk factors for pancreatic cancer:

  1. factors that you can change (modifiable factors)
  2. factors that you can’t change

Factors you can change:

  • Tobacco use. If you smoke, you are twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as someone who doesn’t have a history of smoking, according to the American Cancer Society.
  • Your weight. People with a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher are 20% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight, which includes eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise, can reduce your risk.
  • Exposure to some chemicals. Exposure to some industrial chemicals in the workplace may increase your risk.
  • Diabetes. Pancreatic cancer is more prevalent among people with diabetes. However, if you can maintain a healthy weight, you can reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Chronic inflammation of the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis is one of the primary factors for developing pancreatic cancer.

Factors you can’t change:

  • Age. As you age, your risk goes up. Almost all cases are diagnosed in people over 45, with a typical age of diagnosis around age 70, according to the American Cancer Society.
  • Gender. Men are at greater risk than women.
  • Family history. Most people who develop pancreatic cancer don’t have a family history of pancreatic cancer, but there are some cases in which a certain inherited syndrome does seem to elevate their risk.
  • Pancreatic cancer is slightly more common in African-American people than in white people.
  • Certain genetic factors. There are a few inherited genetic mutations that may lead to syndromes that cause up to 10% of all pancreatic cancers. A couple of examples include the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that lead to breast and ovarian cancers and a mutation to the PRSS1 gene that causes familial pancreatitis.

While you can’t change those risk factors, you may be able to change some of the modifiable risk factors. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have questions about how to make lifestyle changes that will help you keep your pancreas—and your whole body—as healthy as you can.

More from Dr. Cusator on WellTuned.

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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