The average general health article on pancreatic cancer states flatly that there are no early symptoms of pancreatic cancer. People diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are typically already in the advanced stage of the disease by the time it’s caught, and the typical prognosis is death within five years.
Taken one by one, these symptoms could mean many things. But if you find yourself experiencing two or three of these early warning signs of pancreatic cancer, call your doctor and ask for a scan. Imaging techniques such as MRIs can detect pancreatic cancer some of the time, depending on the location of the tumor.
Early warning signs of pancreatic cancer
• Diabetes, especially if it comes on suddenly. Recently, the Mayo Clinic published startling research showing that 40 percent of pancreatic cancer patients had been diagnosed with diabetes one to two years before discovering they had a pancreatic tumor.
• Yellowing of the eyes or skin. Even a small pancreatic tumor can block the bile duct in the head of the pancreas, causing bile to build up. This causes jaundice.
• Itchy skin, palms, and soles of feet. A little-known side-effect of jaundice is itchy hands and feet. It’s due to a skin reaction to the bilirubin, the yellowish brown liver chemical that causes jaundice.
• Lack of appetite. An Italian study found that six to eight months before being diagnosed with pancreatic tumors, patients reported a sudden drop in their appetite and a tendency to feel full after eating very little.
• Changes in taste. In the same Italian study, some of the patients surveyed said they’d suddenly lost their taste for coffee, wine, and smoking. In fact, they said, they felt “disgust” for the smell and taste of coffee and alcohol.
• Abdominal pain. Pancreatic cancer sufferers remember this pain as a gnawing pain, rather than a sharp cramp or ache, and it radiates toward the back. A characteristic clue: the pain goes away when you lean forward.
• Sudden, unexplained weight loss. Weight loss is not always, as many people mistakenly believe, a sign of advanced cancer that is spread to the liver. It can also happen because a lack of pancreatic enzymes is causing fat to pass through the body undigested.