Symptoms often aren’t obvious until the disease is in the advanced stages, but if you notice any of the following signs associated with pancreatic cancer, talk to your doctor.
“Jaundice is one of the clearest symptoms of pancreatic cancer,” says gastroenterologist Dr Christopher J. DiMaio. “Often, patients feel fine until one day a friend notices their eyes look yellow, then they go to the doctor and find they have advanced pancreatic cancer.” Cancers that start near the head of the pancreas can block the bile duct, preventing bile from reaching the intestines, where it helps break down fats and eventually leaves the body in the stool. This bile builds up and causes jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin or eyes, he explains.
Place the tip of your finger on the top of your abdomen, just below the breastbone. Then imagine your finger pointing straight back through your body to the spine. That’s a common location that pancreatic cancer patients report feeling pain, says Dr DiMaio. “The pain is hard to describe, but a dull, internal pain in this area, or radiating around the sides of your abdomen to the back, is a tip-off and you should get it checked out,” he says. Cancers that start in the body or tail of the pancreas can press on nearby organs, causing pain. If the cancer spreads to the nerves surrounding the pancreas, this can cause back pain.
If your urine starts to look dark (brown or rust-coloured), this may be one of the pancreatic cancer symptoms you should notice. As bilirubin, a substance made by the liver that partly makes up bile, builds up in the blood, urine darkens. Clay-coloured or greasy stools can also be symptoms of pancreatic cancer, as they can be caused by cancer blocking the bile duct, says Dr DiMaio. Dark urine and greasy stools can also be signs of other conditions, including hepatitis and certain blood disorders.
Cancer pressing on the far end of the stomach can cause a partial blockage, making it hard for food to get through. This can cause nausea, vomiting, and pain that tends to be worse after eating. All of these things, therefore, could be symptoms of pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the 7 cancers that are hard to detect early, but “unexplained or chronic pancreatitis can be caused by a small tumour on the pancreas,” says Dr DiMaio. Although pancreatitis is more commonly caused by gallstones, new medications or alcohol abuse, if you develop the condition and don’t have any of those risk factors, it could be something more serious, he says.
If your mouth is a mess of bad breath, inflamed gums or loose teeth, it could be more than bad hygiene. “Pancreatic cancer patients are known to be susceptible to gum disease, cavities, and poor oral health in general,” according to researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center, who conducted a study examining mouth bacteria of pancreatic cancer patients versus people without. They found that the presence of the same bacteria that has been tied to dental diseases like periodontitis (inflammation of the gums) put participants at a 59% greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer than those whose mouths didn’t contain the bacteria.
A diabetes diagnosis doesn’t mean you’ll get pancreatic cancer, but it is associated with an increased risk. One Mayo Clinic study found that 40% of pancreatic patients were diagnosed with diabetes in the months before their cancer diagnosis. The pancreas is responsible for creating insulin, so the early stages of the tumour may affect the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin, causing diabetes, says Dr DiMaio.
If you suddenly have little to no appetite, or if you’re losing weight without changing your diet or exercise regime, see your doctor; these are some of the common pancreatic cancer symptoms, says Dr DiMaio.
This article originally appeared on Reader’s Digest.