Pancreatic cancer - symptoms and causes (2023)


What is pancreatic cancer? Mayo Clinic expert explains

Learn more about pancreatic cancer from Mayo Clinic Surgeon Oncology, Chee-Chee Stucky, M.D.

Hi. I'm Dr. Chee-Chee Stucky, a surgical oncologist at the Mayo Clinic. In this video, we'll cover the basics of pancreatic cancer: What is it? Who gets it? What are the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment? Whether you're looking for answers for yourself or someone you love, we're here to give you the best information available. Understanding pancreatic cancer starts with understanding the pancreas. This small fish-shaped organ is located behind the stomach and produces enzymes to aid digestion and hormones that regulate blood sugar levels. Pancreatic cancer usually begins in the pancreatic ducts. Small changes in cellular DNA cause cells to proliferate uncontrollably and aggregate into clumps that we call tumors. Untreated cancer cells can spread outside the pancreas to other parts of the body.

Who gets it?

While anyone can get pancreatic cancer, there are some risk factors you should be aware of. Most pancreatic cancers are diagnosed after the age of 65. Smoking, diabetes, chronic pancreatitis or pancreatitis, a family history of pancreatic cancer, and certain genetic syndromes are known risk factors. The reason may also be extra weight, which is unhealthy for the body. New research has found that a specific combination of smoking, diabetes and poor diet increases the risk of pancreatic cancer more than either factor alone.

What are the symptoms?

Unfortunately, we usually do not notice the symptoms of pancreatic cancer until it is in an advanced stage. If present, symptoms may include: Abdominal pain radiating to the back. Loss of appetite or unintentional weight loss. jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin or eyes. Light colored chairs. Dark urine. Especially itchy skin. Diabetes that becomes extremely difficult to control. Blood clots or tiredness.

How is the diagnosis done?

If doctors think you may have pancreatic cancer, they may recommend one or more diagnostic tests. For example, imaging tests such as an ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, or PET scan can help your doctor get a clearer picture of your internal organs. An endoscopic ultrasound, or EUS, involves the doctor passing a small camera through the esophagus and stomach to get a close-up of the pancreas. During EUS, your doctor may take a tissue biopsy for further testing. Pancreatic cancer can sometimes release certain proteins called tumor markers into the blood. Therefore, doctors may order blood tests to detect elevated levels of these markers, one of which is called CA 19-9. If the diagnosis is confirmed, the next step will be to determine the extent or stage of the cancer. The steps are numbered one through four and may need to be determined through additional testing. You can ask a lot of questions during this process. Or you can ask for a second opinion to be confident and confident about your treatment.

How is it treated?

When recommending treatment for pancreatic cancer, your doctor will consider many factors, including your overall health and personal preferences. They may recommend one or a combination of the following treatments: Chemotherapy uses drugs that release chemicals that enter the body and kill cancer cells, which can be anywhere. Radiation kills cancer cells in a similar way, but with high-energy beams aimed at the tumor. Surgery involves the physical removal of the tumor and its immediate surroundings. Ask your doctor if you qualify for clinical trials testing new treatments. And finally, palliative care. This care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers and other trained professionals who specialize in relieving the pain and unpleasant symptoms of serious illnesses.

What now?

Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness can be devastating for both the patient and their loved ones. However, we do have some suggestions below to help patients cope: Find out more about your condition. Knowledge is power, and information can help you feel more confident in making treatment decisions. Find support. This could mean a support system made up of family and friends, a cancer support group made up of people going through the same experience, or a professional counselor such as a therapist or religious leader. Lean on those around you when you feel helpless, overwhelmed or insecure. You may consider hospice care that provides comfort and support to terminally ill patients and their loved ones. If you want to learn more about pancreatic cancer, watch our other videos or visit We wish you well.

Pancreas in the digestive system

Pancreatic cancer - symptoms and causes (1)

Pancreas in the digestive system

The pancreas is a long, flat gland located horizontally behind the stomach. Plays a role in digestion and blood sugar regulation.

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer - symptoms and causes (2)

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is a cancer that originates from the cells of the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of the pancreas, an organ in the abdomen that is located behind the lower abdomen. The pancreas releases enzymes to aid digestion and produces hormones that help control blood sugar levels.

Different types of growths can occur in the pancreas, including cancerous and non-cancerous tumors. The most common type of cancer that develops in the pancreas starts in the cells that line the ducts that transport digestive enzymes from the pancreas (pancreatic duct adenocarcinoma).

Pancreatic cancer is rarely detected in its early stages when it is the easiest to treat. This is because it often causes no symptoms until it has spread to other organs.

Treatment options for pancreatic cancer are selected based on how far the cancer has spread. Options may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of these.


Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often do not appear until the disease is advanced. These may include:

  • Abdominal pain radiating to the back
  • Loss of appetite or unintentional weight loss
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • Light colored chairs
  • Dark urine
  • Itchy skin
  • A new diagnosis of diabetes or existing diabetes that is becoming increasingly difficult to control
  • Blood clots
  • Tiredness

When to go to the doctor

If you experience unexplained symptoms that worry you, see your doctor. Many other conditions can cause these symptoms, so your doctor may check for these conditions as well as pancreatic cancer.

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It is not clear what causes pancreatic cancer. Doctors have identified certain factors that may increase the risk of this type of cancer, including smoking and certain inherited gene mutations.

Understanding your pancreas

Your pancreas is about 15 cm long and looks like a pear on its side. It releases (secretes) hormones, including insulin, that help the body process the sugar in food. It produces digestive juices that help the body digest food and absorb nutrients.

How does pancreatic cancer develop?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when pancreatic cells develop changes (mutations) in the DNA. A cell's DNA contains instructions that tell it what to do. These mutations cause cells to go out of control and continue living after normal cells die. These cells that accumulate can form a tumor. Untreated pancreatic cancer cells can spread to nearby organs and blood vessels and to distant parts of the body.

Most pancreatic cancers start in the cells lining the pancreatic ducts. This type of cancer is called pancreatic adenocarcinoma or pancreatic exocrine cancer. Less commonly, cancer can form in the hormone-producing cells or neuroendocrine cells of the pancreas. These types of cancer are called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, islet cell cancers, or pancreatic endocrine cancer.

Risk factors

Factors that increase the risk of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis (pancreatitis)
  • Family history of genetic syndromes that may increase cancer risk, including BRCA2 gene mutations, Lynch syndrome, and familial atypical molecular malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Dignity
  • Older age because most people are diagnosed after age 65

A large study found that the combination of smoking, long-term diabetes and a poor diet increased the risk of pancreatic cancer to a greater extent than the risk of any of these factors alone.


Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography

Pancreatic cancer - symptoms and causes (3)

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) uses a dye to highlight the bile ducts and pancreatic ducts on x-rays. A thin, flexible tube (endoscope) with a camera at the end is passed down the throat and into the small intestine. The dye enters the channels through a small hollow tube (catheter) that passes through the endoscope.

As pancreatic cancer progresses, it can cause complications such as:

  • Weight loss.Many factors can cause weight loss in people with pancreatic cancer. Weight loss can occur when the tumor consumes the body's energy. Nausea and vomiting caused by cancer treatment or a tumor pressing on the stomach can make it difficult to eat. Or your body may have difficulty processing nutrients from food because your pancreas is not producing enough digestive juices.
  • Jaundice.Pancreatic cancer that blocks the liver's bile duct can cause jaundice. Symptoms include yellowing of the skin and eyes, dark urine, and pale stools. Jaundice usually occurs without abdominal pain.

    Your doctor may recommend placing a plastic or metal tube (stent) inside your bile duct to keep it open. This is done using a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). WhileERCPthe endoscope is passed through the throat, through the stomach, and into the upper part of the small intestine. The dye is then injected into the pancreas and bile ducts through a small hollow tube (catheter) passed through an endoscope. Finally, pictures of the channels are taken.

  • He was.A growing tumor can press on nerves in the abdomen, causing pain that can become severe. Painkillers can help you feel more comfortable. Treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy can help slow tumor growth and relieve pain.

    In severe cases, your doctor may recommend injecting alcohol into the nerves that control stomach pain (celiac disease). This process prevents the nerves from sending pain signals to the brain.

  • Bowel obstruction.Pancreatic cancer that grows or presses on the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum) can block the flow of digested food from the stomach to the intestines.

    Your doctor may recommend placing a tube (stent) in your small intestine to keep it open. In some cases, surgical placement of a temporary feeding tube or connecting the stomach to the lower part of the intestine that is not blocked by the tumor may help.


You can reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer if you:

  • Stop smoking.If you smoke, try to quit. Talk to your doctor about strategies to help you quit smoking, including support groups, medications, and nicotine replacement therapy. If you don't smoke, don't start.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.If you are at a healthy weight, try to maintain it. If you need to lose weight, aim for slow, steady weight loss - 1 to 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kg) per week. Combine daily exercise with a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains in smaller meals to help you lose weight.
  • Choose a healthy diet.A diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables and whole grains can help reduce your risk of cancer.

Consider seeing a genetic counselor if there is a family history of pancreatic cancer. They can work with you to review your family's health history and determine if you might benefit from a genetic test to find out your risk of developing pancreatic cancer or other types of cancer.

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