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What are the symptoms?

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

Common symptoms of exocrine tumours and pancreatic NETs may include:

  • jaundice – yellowish skin and eyes, dark urine, pale bowel motions and itchy skin
  • indigestion (heartburn)
  • 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 that are difficult to flush away
  • newly diagnosed diabetes.

Because the rarer form of pancreatic cancer, functioning pancreatic NETs, produce excess hormones they also have symptoms such as: 

  • too much sugar in the blood (diabetes)
  • a drop in blood sugar
  • blurred vision
  • being very thirsty
  • needing to pass urine more often
  • reflux
  • severe watery diarrhoea.

Which health professionals will I see?

Your general practitioner (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. 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 cancer is challenging to treat and it is recommended that you are treated in a specialist treatment centre.

pancreatic or HPB (hepato-pancreatobiliary) surgeonoperates on the liver, pancreas and surrounding organs
gastroenterologistdiagnoses and treats disorders of the digestive system, including pancreatic cancer and blocked bile ducts; may perform endoscopy
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
nuclear medicine specialistcoordinates the delivery of radioactive iodine treatment and nuclear scans
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
dietitianrecommends an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery; helps with managing weight changes and digestive/bowel problems
social workerlinks you to support services and helps you with emotional, practical and financial issues
psychologist, counsellorhelp you manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment
physiotherapist, occupational therapistassist with physical and practical problems, including restoring movement and mobility after treatment and recommending aids and equipment

Where should I have treatment?

Treatment for pancreatic cancer is highly specialised. This is especially the case with surgery for early pancreatic cancer. There is strong evidence that outcomes are better with an experienced surgeon who performs the operation at least several times a year.

Specialist treatment centres have multidisciplinary teams of health professionals experienced in treating pancreatic cancer. These centres see a lot of people with pancreatic cancer and are also associated with better outcomes. Visiting one of these centres gives you access to a wide range of treatment options, but it may mean you need to travel away from home for treatment. To find a specialist treatment centre for pancreatic cancer, talk to your GP.

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

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed February 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Lorraine Chantrill, Head of Department, Medical Oncology, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District, NSW; Marion Bamblett, Nurse Unit Manager, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Prof Katherine Clark, Clinical Director of Palliative Care, Northern Sydney Local Health District Cancer and Palliative Care Network, and Conjoint Professor, Northern Clinical School, The University of Sydney, NSW; Lynda Dunstone, Consumer; Kate Graham, Accredited Practising Dietitian – Upper GI Dietitian, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Gina Hesselberg, Radiation Oncologist, St George Hospital Cancer Centre, NSW; Dr Marni Nenke, Endocrinologist and Mary Overton Early Career Research Fellow, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; A/Prof Nicholas O’Rourke, Head of Hepatobiliary Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital and The University of Queensland, QLD; Rose Rocca, Senior Clinical Dietitian – Upper GI, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Gail Smith, Consumer.