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    Chronic Conditions
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    A Guide to Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms: Top Red Flags To Look Out For

    Although relatively rare, pancreatic cancer is a serious condition that can often go unnoticed until it reaches an advanced stage, with one of the lowest survival rates after diagnosis (Bartel et al, 2017). 

    Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rate

    Recent research demonstrates that the pancreatic cancer survival rate is very low, with five-year survival currently approaching 10% (Nagendram & Bhattacharya, 2023); though it has been found to be as low at 4.3% (Bahardoust et al, 2022). Detecting it early is crucial for effective treatment (Pereira et al, 2020). 

    In this guide, UK Meds will walk you through the key red flags and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, providing you with the knowledge you need to stay informed and proactive about your health. Remember, early detection can make a significant difference in the outcome of this disease.

    Doctor assessing pancreas to check for pancreatic cancer symptoms

    What are the first red flag signs of pancreatic cancer?

    According to the NHS (2023), the first red flag signs of pancreatic cancer are often unexplained weight loss, jaundice and / or back / stomach pain. 

    Unexpected Weight Loss

    If you find yourself shedding pounds without a clear reason, such as changes in diet or exercise, it's a cause for concern. This weight loss occurs because pancreatic cancer can affect your body's ability to digest food properly. Weight loss is highly prevalent amongst pancreatic cancer patients (Hendifar et al, 2018).


    If you find that your skin and eyes are becoming more yellow in complexion, your urine is a darker shade of yellow or orange and your stools are pale in colour, this is another early cause for concern. Jaundice occurs when the pancreatic cancer blocks the bile ducts, affecting the flow of bile (Puckett & Garfield, 2022).

    Back Pain / Stomach Pain

    If you’re experiencing stomach pain or back pain that initially comes and goes and is exacerbated after eating or lying down, this is another early indicator of potential pancreatic cancer (Minaga et al, 2018). This pain often becomes more noticeable as the tumour grows.

    If you experience any of the above early symptoms it’s vital to consult your doctor as soon as you can to get advice.

    Video: Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer in 1 Minute

    PCUK have put together a helpful video providing a quick overview of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer to keep a lookout for. You can watch this below:

    What are the other follow-on symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

    Pancreatic cancer may manifest with several follow-on symptoms, including:

    Loss of appetite: 

    A decreased appetite is common due to digestive issues caused by pancreatic cancer, particularly if a patient notices an aversion to meat (Vujasinovic et al, 2017).

    Digestive problems: 

    Pancreatic cancer can lead to difficulty digesting fatty foods, resulting in oily, foul-smelling stools and diarrhoea (Hillson, R., 2016).

    New-onset diabetes: 

    Sometimes, pancreatic cancer can trigger diabetes, even in people who haven't had it before (De Souza et al, 2016).

    How advanced is the disease when pancreatic cancer symptoms start to occur?

    Pancreatic cancer symptoms typically become noticeable when the disease is in its later stages, after the tumour has invaded surrounding tissues or spread to distant organs (Vincent et al, 2011). This is one of the reasons why early detection of pancreatic cancer is challenging and why routine check-ups with your doctor or GP are so important. It emphasises the importance of being vigilant about your health, especially if you have risk factors such as a family history of pancreatic cancer or smoking.

    Could pancreatic cancer symptoms be mistaken for a less serious condition?

    Yes, some of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer can mimic those of less serious conditions. For example, Pancreatic Cancer Action (2023) states that studies into pancreatic cancer diagnosis have highlighted that the condition can sometimes be misdiagnosed for less serious health conditions, due the symptoms of the disease being vague. 

    Pancreatic cancer can sometimes be misdiagnosed for more common conditions such as:

    That's why it's crucial not to jump to conclusions but to consult a healthcare professional when these symptoms arise. A proper diagnosis is the key to distinguishing pancreatic cancer from other ailments.

    When should you see a GP about pancreatic cancer?

    You should visit your GP or call NHS 111 at the first sign of pancreatic cancer symptoms, especially if they persist or worsen over time. Early diagnosis can improve the chances of successful treatment or provide reassurance if your symptoms are due to a less serious condition. Don't hesitate to seek medical advice, and be sure to mention any risk factors or family history that may be relevant. Your GP can guide you through the necessary tests and referrals to specialists, if needed.

    Which UK charities provide support for pancreatic cancer patients?

    In the United Kingdom, several dedicated charities work tirelessly to support individuals affected by pancreatic cancer. These organisations offer invaluable resources, funding for research, and emotional assistance. Some notable UK charities focused on pancreatic cancer include:

    Pancreatic Cancer UK

    • A leading charity devoted exclusively to pancreatic cancer. They provide support to patients and their families, fund research projects, and raise awareness about this disease. Their website offers a wealth of information, from symptoms and diagnosis to treatment options and support services.

    The Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund

    • A charity committed to funding groundbreaking research to improve our understanding of pancreatic cancer and develop more effective treatments. Their work is instrumental in advancing the fight against this challenging disease.

    Cancer Research UK

    • A comprehensive cancer charity that funds research into various cancer types, including pancreatic cancer. They play a crucial role in advancing our knowledge of the disease and developing new treatment options.

    Macmillan Cancer Support

    • Offers support to people affected by all types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer. They provide practical, emotional, and financial assistance to patients and their families, helping them navigate the challenges that cancer presents.

    Concluding Thoughts

    Pancreatic cancer is a formidable opponent, but early detection can greatly improve your chances of overcoming it. Familiarise yourself with these red flags and symptoms, and if you or someone you know experiences them, seek medical attention promptly. Remember, it's better to be cautious and get checked out than to delay, as early intervention is often the key to a more favourable outcome. Your health should always be a top priority.

    Medically Reviewed by:
    Dr. Alexis Missick MBChB. MRCGP
    GMC reference no: 7151419


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