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What are the symptoms?

Early-stage pancreatic cancer rarely causes obvious symptoms. Symptoms may not appear until the cancer is large enough to affect nearby organs or has spread. 

The first symptom of pancreatic cancer is often jaundice. Signs of jaundice may include yellowish skin and eyes, dark urine, pale bowel motions and itchy skin. Jaundice is caused by the build-up of bilirubin, a dark yellow-brown substance found in bile. Bilirubin can build up if pancreatic cancer blocks the common bile duct.

Other common symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • appetite loss
  • nausea with or without vomiting
  • unexplained weight loss
  • pain in the upper abdomen, side or back, which may cause you to wake up at night
  • changed bowel motions – including diarrhoea, severe constipation, or pale, oily, foul-smelling stools (poo) that are difficult to flush away
  • newly diagnosed diabetes
  • fatigue (feeling very tired).

These symptoms can also occur in many other conditions and do not necessarily mean that you have cancer. Speak with your general practitioner (GP) if you have any of these symptoms. 

Screening tests help detect cancer in people who do not have any symptoms. Although there are useful screening tests for certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer and bowel cancer, there is currently no screening test available for pancreatic cancer.

Which health professionals will I see?

Your GP will arrange the first tests to assess your symptoms. If these tests do not rule out cancer, you will usually be referred to a specialist, such as a gastroenterologist or surgeon. The specialist will arrange further tests.

If pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, the specialist will consider treatment options. Often these will be discussed with other health professionals at what is known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT) meeting. During and after treatment, you will see a range of health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your care.

pancreatic or HPB (hepato-pancreatobiliary) surgeonoperates on the liver, bile ducts, pancreas and surrounding organs
gastroenterologistdiagnoses and treats disorders of the digestive system; may diagnose pancreatic cancer, perform endoscopy, and insert stents to clear blocked bile ducts
medical oncologisttreats cancer with drug therapies such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy (systemic treatment)
radiation oncologisttreats cancer by prescribing and overseeing a course of radiation therapy
endocrinologistdiagnoses and treats hormonal disorders, including diabetes
radiologistanalyses x-rays and scans; an interventional radiologist may also perform a biopsy under ultrasound or CT, and deliver some treatments
cancer care coordinatorcoordinates your care, liaises with other members of the MDT and supports you and your family throughout treatment; care may also be coordinated by a clinical nurse consultant (CNC) or clinical nurse specialist (CNS)
nurseadministers drugs and provides care, information and support throughout treatment
palliative care teama team of specialist doctors, nurses and allied health workers who work closely with the GP and oncologist to help control symptoms and maintain quality of life
dietitianhelps with nutrition concerns and recommends changes to diet during treatment and recovery
social workerlinks you to support services and helps you with emotional, practical and financial issues
physiotherapist, exercise physiologisthelp restore movement and mobility, and improve fitness and wellbeing
occupational therapistassists in adapting your living and working environment to help you resume usual activities after treatment

Where should I have treatment?

Treatment for pancreatic cancer is highly specialised. This is especially the case with surgery for early pancreatic cancer, such as the Whipple procedure.

There is strong evidence that outcomes are better when people have their treatment in a specialist centre that sees a lot of people with pancreatic cancer. These high-volume centres have multidisciplinary teams of health professionals experienced in treating pancreatic cancer.

Visiting one of these pancreatic cancer centres gives you access to a wide range of treatment options, including clinical trials, but it may mean you need to travel away from home to have the treatment.

Sometimes the multidisciplinary team from a specialist centre will be able to advise your local specialist. You may find that you can visit the specialist centre to confirm the diagnosis and work out a treatment plan and then have much of your treatment closer to your home.

If you live in a rural or regional area and have to travel a long way for appointments or treatment, you may be able to get financial assistance towards the cost of accommodation or travel. To check whether you are eligible or to apply for this assistance, speak to your GP or the hospital social worker, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

To find a treatment centre that specialises in pancreatic cancer, talk to your GP.

Featured resources

Pancreatic Cancer - Your best guide to cancer care

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed February 2022 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Benjamin Loveday, Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary (HPB) Surgeon, Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Katherine Allsopp, Palliative Medicine Physician, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Hollie Bevans, Senior Dietitian, Radiotherapy and Oncology, Western Health, VIC; Dr Lorraine Chantrill, Head of Department Medical Oncology, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District, NSW; Amanda Maxwell, Consumer; Prof Michael Michael, Medical Oncologist, Lower and Upper GI Oncology Service, Co-Chair Neuroendocrine Unit, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and University of Melbourne, VIC; Dr Andrew Oar, Radiation Oncologist, Icon Cancer Centre, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Meg Rogers, Nurse Consultant Upper GI/NET Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Ady Sipthorpe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.