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Early Pancreatic Cancer Lacks Symptoms

Dear Dr. Dave and Dr. Dee,

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer, and how can it be diagnosed early?



Dear Worried,

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death, but is difficult to diagnose early because symptoms often do not show up right away.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI at, pancreatic cancer is sometimes called a "silent disease" because early pancreatic cancer often does not cause symptoms. But, as the cancer grows, symptoms may include:


1. Pain in the upper abdomen or upper back

2. Yellow skin and eyes, and dark urine from jaundice

3. Weakness

4. Loss of appetite

5. Nausea and vomiting

6. Weight loss

These symptoms are not sure signs of pancreatic cancer. An infection or other problem could also cause these symptoms. Only a doctor can diagnose the cause of a person's symptoms. Anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor so that the doctor can treat any problem as early as possible.


1. Age - The likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most pancreatic cancers occur in people over the age of 60.

2. Smoking - Cigarette smokers are two or three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop pancreatic cancer.

3. Diabetes - Pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people who have diabetes than in people who do not.

4. Being male - More men than women are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

5. Being African American - African Americans are more likely than Asians, Hispanics, or whites to get pancreatic cancer.

6. Family history - The risk for developing pancreatic cancer triples if a person's mother, father, sister, or brother had the disease. Also, a family history of colon or ovarian cancer increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.

7. Chronic pancreatitis - Chronic pancreatitis is a painful condition of the pancreas. Some evidence suggests that chronic pancreatitis may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

8. Other studies suggest that exposure to certain chemicals in the workplace or a diet high in fat may increase the chance of getting pancreatic cancer.

Most people with known risk factors do not get pancreatic cancer. On the other hand, many who do get the disease have none of these factors. People who think they may be at risk for pancreatic cancer should discuss this concern with their doctor. The doctor may suggest ways to reduce the risk and can plan an appropriate schedule for checkups.

For more information on pancreatic cancer, see