Pancreatic Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Cancer is among the top 5 causes of death in the EU, US, and globally. 

However, cancer is quite a varied condition. 

It can affect any organ. 

Cancer is a condition that occurs when specific body cells start growing abnormally due to gene mutation. 

They start growing aggressively, depriving the affected organs of nutrients, resulting in the failure of that organ. 

Cancer cells can also migrate to surrounding tissues, and travel to different body parts through the lymphatic system in a process called metastasis, ultimately causing widespread destruction and untimely death.

The pancreas is an organ located just behind the stomach. It produces many vital hormones on enzymes. 

For example, it plays an important role in glucose metabolism by producing hormones like insulin and glucagon. 

It also produces digestive enzymes that help digest carbs, lipids, and proteins – the pancreas produces almost eight cups of pancreatic juice daily.

Pancreatic cancer is among the top ten most common cancer types, causing about 441,000 deaths each year globally. 

About 2% of all cancers are pancreatic cancer. It causes about 4.6% of all cancer deaths. 

However, the prevalence of pancreatic cancers is 2-3 times higher in the developed world (EU and the US). (1,2)

The higher prevalence of pancreatic cancer in the EU and US is significantly related to lifestyle choices. 

This suggests that many cases of pancreatic cancer are preventable through lifestyle modification and the use of preventive measures like health supplements.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Like any other cancer, it is caused by the gene mutation of pancreatic cells, which results in the uncontrolled growth of these cells. 

Sometimes this growth may be non-cancerous or benign, but at other times it may be cancerous or malignant, thus resulting in pancreatic cancer.

There are two types of pancreatic cancers: exocrine and neuroendocrine tumors. Among all the pancreatic cancers, exocrine makes 93%, and only about 7% are neuroendocrine.

There is a reason why the exocrine type is more common. The pancreas produces lots of gastric juices, which means that cells making these juices are also more prone to cancer. 

On the other hand, neuroendocrine cancer occurs due to the mutation of islet cells that produce minute amounts of hormones each day. 

Adenocarcinoma is another common name for pancreatic cancer. It most commonly occurs in the pancreatic duct.

Cancers like insulinoma causing uncontrolled insulin production are a type of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. 

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The two most common ways of defining stages of pancreatic cancer are using a simple approach like stage 0 to 4 or the TNM system. 

Doctors often use the TNM (tumor size, nodes, metastasis) system to provide more details. However, for ordinary people, a simple numbering system is better understood. Generally, the lower the number, the less severe the cancer is.

When considering the staging of pancreatic cancer, it is vital to understand that there are also sub-stages like Stage 1A and 1B. However, for the sake of simplicity, this article does not describe sub-stages.

  • Stage 0. This is just the beginning of cancer, also called carcinoma in situ. It is a small tumor that affects only the top layers of the pancreatic duct. The deeper layer of the duct is not affected.
  • Stage 1. Cancer has grown in size, become deeper, and may be of size up to 4 cm. Nonetheless, it is localized, not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.
  • Stage 2. Cancer may be bigger than 4 cm, or it has spread to no more than 3 nearby lymph node groups.
  • Stage 3. Cancer has spread to four or more nearby lymph node groups but has not spread to distant sites.
  • Stage 4. Cancer has spread to distant sites like the liver, abdominal cavity, and more.

Signs and symptoms

Like any other cancer, people would not experience many signs and symptoms in the early stage of cancer. However, as the tumor increases in size or spreads to adjoining areas, it starts causing symptoms. 

  • Fatigue and unexplained weight loss are often the early signs of cancer.
  • As the tumor increases in size, it causes upper abdominal pain, which may also spread to the back.
  • Jaundice or yellowing of the skin is a common sign of pancreatic cancer.
  • Dark-colored pee is a frequent sign.
  • Other signs are blood clots in the body, nausea, and vomiting, which may be severe, and itchy skin.
  • New or worsening diabetes may also suggest pancreatic cancer.

Most people may have various gastrointestinal issues, too. The above signs are mainly of exocrine pancreatic cancer. However, pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer may produce different kinds of signs due to hormone overproduction. 


What does the pain of pancreatic cancer feel like?

Pain is not a characteristic sign of pancreatic cancer in its early stages. However, as cancer progresses, it becomes more pronounced. 

Studies suggest that about 70% of all cases of diagnosis of pancreatic cancer occur due to a visit to a doctor due to pain.

Most people describe pain with pancreatic cancer as dull. However, pain intensity continues to increase. Unlike spastic pain caused by gastrointestinal issues, pain in pancreatic cancer is constant. 

As cancer progresses, the pain spreads around the back. It worsens when lying down and improves a bit on sitting or leaning forward. This pain is also made worst by the intake of food. 

In some cases, pain may start from the back, and many may confuse it with backache. However, pain in the case of pancreatic cancer would not affect the lower back.


Science is unclear on what causes pancreatic cancer. Nonetheless, it is evident that particular lifestyle and environmental factors increase the risk of the condition. Studies show that pancreatic cancer is much more prevalent in developed economies.

Risk factors

Although the cause of pancreatic cancer remains unclear, studies show its risk is greater in some individuals. The lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer is one in sixty-four. 

It appears that the western lifestyle increases the risk of pancreatic cancer, which may be associated with dietary issues, and environmental toxins. 

  • The risk of pancreatic cancer is much higher in those who smoke tobacco.
  • Chronic pancreatitis or inflammation of the pancreas due to alcohol, smoking, and other issues may considerably increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Obesity is another risk factor for cancer. Obesity may increase the risk of various cancers and more so of visceral organs.
  • It seems that obesity, along with type 2 diabetes, may significantly increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Some people are at greater risk due to exposure to specific chemicals, including some commonly used chemicals and cleaners.

Certain risk factors are non-modifiable, like ethnicity and family history of pancreatic cancer. It appears that blacks are also at a greater risk of cancer. 

This risk of cancer is higher in those older than 45 years of age. Similarly, the risk is higher in those living with BRCA genes. 

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Doctors do not recommend regular screening for pancreatic cancer. That is why there are no screening guidelines for pancreatic cancer. In addition, no blood test can help in screening. 

Nevertheless, it may be a good idea to consider cancer screening for those with family history, those carrying BRCA genes, who developed type 2 diabetes, and are older than 45 years (3). 

Genetic tests may help identify the cancer risk. In high-risk people, doctors may consider tests like MRI or endoscopic ultrasound. 

It is worth knowing that screening tests for pancreatic cancer are not very sensitive and accurate. Thus, despite the screening, doctors may miss the diagnosis in its early stages. For example, stage 0 cancer may not be visible in MRI or endoscopic ultrasound.

When to see a doctor

Timely intervention may prevent metastatic pancreatic cancer and improve patient outcomes. Thus, it is vital to seek timely help from the healthcare team. The survival rate of any cancer depends on how quickly you seek medical attention.

Thus, do not neglect any upper abdominal pain that has been continuing for some time and affects the back. Especially if the pain is not relieved by rest and is felt during the night when lying on the bed. 

Often a person may have other signs like changes in appetite, pain after eating food, and more. In addition, some may unexpectedly develop diabetes. All these are reasons for pancreatic cancer screening.



It is quite challenging to diagnose pancreatic cancer, especially in its early stages when the tumor is still minute. This means that doctors may struggle to diagnose the condition, and they might even miss the diagnosis.

No blood test can diagnose pancreatic cancer. Some tests might suggest cancer risk. However, these tests do not essentially confirm the diagnosis. 

For example, doctors may test blood for high carbohydrate antigen (CA) levels 19-9. This blood test may suggest pancreatic cancer, but not essentially. It may be falsely positive or positive to other kinds of cancer (4).

If doctors think that person might have pancreatic cancer, they may go for MRI or even better endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). In EUS, the ultrasound probe is introduced to the stomach via mouth, which helps provide a clearer picture. 

EUS or MRI are helpful but cannot confirm the diagnosis. Therefore, tissue biopsy is the only way to confirm the diagnosis. 

However, obtaining a tissue sample of the pancreas for the biopsy is quite challenging. Nonetheless, it is the primary way to confirm the diagnosis.

imaging scans


Pancreatic cancer is a severe condition and may cause many complications. Some of them are:

Pancreatic insufficiency

It would be present in 80-90% of cases. This means reduced production of digestive enzymes, and thus gastrointestinal issues and severe malabsorption syndrome. 

This may cause significant weight loss. It may even affect insulin-producing beta-cells, leading to severe diabetes.

Intestinal obstruction

As cancer grows in size, it may pressurize surrounding organs, thus causing many complications. In addition, the larger tumor may cause severe intestinal obstruction.

Blood clots

The formation of blood clots causing deep vein thrombosis is a common complication of cancer. It may sometimes be the primary sign of the condition. If unmanaged, it may cause pulmonary emboli or even heart attack.

Severe pain

In the later stages of the disease, pain may be severe. It often occurs when the tumor grows and thus pressurizing various nerves, organs, and more. 


If detected early enough, doctors can cure pancreatic cancer. However, regretfully, it is often identified late and thus has a poor survivability rate.

Researchers have been slow to find pancreatic cancer remedies, and very few clinical trials are ongoing.

Doctors treat it using a traditional approach combining surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. Generally, doctors would remove the tumor surgically and may even remove the surrounding tissues. After that, they may use radiotherapy and chemotherapy to kill the remaining cancer cells.

Some new treatments under development are immunotherapy and targeted therapy (targets specific genes or proteins). However, these new therapies can help only in some cases. 

Additionally, doctors would also provide supportive treatment. This includes pain management, jaundice treatment, reducing intestine blockage, and diabetes control. Cancer patients also require emotional support.


Pancreatic cancer diet (foods to eat and avoid)

The pancreas produces digestive enzymes that help digest carbs, fats, and proteins. Additionally, it also produces insulin. 

In cancer, both exocrine and endocrinal functions of the gland are affected, resulting in poor digestion and poor blood glucose control.

Thus, the most important thing to do when living with pancreatic cancer is to eat five or more times a day in small portions. This will help digest food.

At the same time, avoid starchy foods, limit intake of fats, and focus on lean proteins. It means consuming berries, green vegetables, non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, and lean protein like eggs, fish, and tofu.

It is good to consume foods rich in dietary fiber, as they promote gut microbiota and help detoxify. Thus, beans, lentils, quinoa, and oatmeal are good to eat.

Consume healthy fats that are more readily digested, like olive oil, nuts, avocadoes, and so on. Similarly, MCT oil may be good to consume as it bypasses digestive processes and is readily absorbed by the body.

On the other hand, avoid foods like red meat, processed meat, alcohol, sugar and sugary drinks, foods rich in saturated fats, fried items, and so on.

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Since pancreatic cancer is more prevalent in certain population groups, it has some association with lifestyle choices. Some of the ways to prevent the condition are:

  • Avoid smoking tobacco in any form.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol drinking.
  • Try to maintain a normal body weight.
  • Avoid getting diabetes, and manage your blood glucose levels even if diabetes occurs.
  • Prevent exposure to toxins by using safety equipment.

Additionally, one may benefit from dietary measures, detoxification, and the use of natural supplements.


Pancreatic cancer is not uncommon. However, people are less aware of its risk than breast, lung, and prostate cancers. 

Moreover, it is difficult to diagnose in its early stages, and pancreatic cancer survivorship is low, especially in the case of pancreatic cancer metastasis. 

Hence, the better strategy is to focus on its prevention. Moreover, prevention measures like countering obesity and giving up smoking have many other beneficial health effects.

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  1. Lippi G, Mattiuzzi C. The global burden of pancreatic cancer. Arch Med Sci. 2020;16(4):820-824.
  2. Rawla P, Sunkara T, Gaduputi V. Epidemiology of Pancreatic Cancer: Global Trends, Etiology and Risk Factors. World J Oncol. 2019;10(1):10-27.
  3. Lucas AL, Kastrinos F. Screening for Pancreatic Cancer. JAMA. 2019;322(5):407-408.
  4. Lee SP, Sung IK, Kim JH, Lee SY, Park HS, Shim CS. Usefulness of Carbohydrate Antigen 19-9 Test in Healthy People and Necessity of Medical Follow-up in Individuals with Elevated Carbohydrate Antigen 19-9 Level. Korean J Fam Med. 2019;40(5):314-322.

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