If you have indigestion and stomach pains and maybe stop eating and feel a little sick, you might think you just have stomach worms. And while this is by far the most likely cause, you should always be aware that these are also the symptoms of something far worse – the UK’s fifth biggest cancer killer, pancreatic cancer.
The symptoms of the disease, which around 10,500 people are diagnosed in the UK each year, can often be mistaken for other far more harmless conditions and as a result many people do not seek medical attention until the cancer is in a later stage and much more difficult to treat.
As a result, pancreatic cancer is the deadliest common cancer – more than half of people with the disease die within three months of diagnosis, says Pancreatic Cancer UK (PCUK, pancreaticcancer.org.uk).
PCUK Specialist Nurse Jeni Jones says: “The vast majority of cases are diagnosed when the cancer is in its late stages as symptoms often overlap with other conditions such as digestive disorders and irritable bowel syndrome. If you have a persistent symptom, you should talk to a GP – it could mean you’re diagnosed early.”
Here are some of the symptoms that could easily be dismissed as something less serious…
Indigestion and/or heartburn can be a common symptom of pancreatic cancer — but one that most people wouldn’t necessarily believe is related to a serious illness.
“Often people just take over-the-counter remedies for persistent indigestion — it’s not something that automatically makes you run to the GP,” says Jones. “But there are times when it comes with other symptoms like abdominal or back pain and several uncomfortable things that could indicate pancreatic cancer.”
2. Abdominal or back pain
This can be anything from a dull ache to pain radiating from your stomach to your back, Jones explains. “If you’re a woman, it can be around your bra line,” she says. “It’s not back pain, it’s often between the shoulder blades. It can be worse after you eat something and it doesn’t tend to go away that easily.”
She says that combined abdominal and back pain is a fairly common symptom, but some people may only have one or the other.
3. Unexplained weight loss
Weight loss associated with pancreatic cancer can first be seen when people are not actually trying to lose weight and are eating relatively normally. “They may just notice their clothes becoming loose,” says Jones.
4. Loss of appetite
Of course, losing weight is sometimes associated with a loss of appetite, which is another easy-to-ignore symptom of pancreatic cancer, at least initially. “It can range from people thinking they’re not really hungry, to having no appetite at all and not being able to face the food or feeling full after eating very little,” says Jones, who explains that such appetite changes are part of it the tumor may be pressing on the stomach or simply affecting food intake.
Jaundice is a less easy-to-ignore symptom of pancreatic cancer, but it only occurs in people whose tumor is toward the head of the pancreas, Jones explains. “Not everyone with pancreatic cancer will get jaundice, although it’s very common,” she says. “That’s a warning sign — you may notice if the whites of your eyes turn a little yellow before your skin starts to get that yellow cast.”
Your skin can be incredibly itchy before you develop jaundice because bile salts build up under the skin first. “It’s incredibly itchy,” Jones insists. “I’m not talking about a little itch, it would make you scratch to a crazy degree.”
7. Changes in bowel habits
“This is very, very important,” Jones points out, “because there are many, many causes of diarrhea, but this is something we call steatorrhea — when there’s fat in the stool that gives it a yellowish color, it also comes with jaundice.” before. That greasy, yellowish poop that doesn’t wash away is a sure sign that something is wrong further up in the digestive system.
“If the patient does not describe the specifics of their diarrhea, it can waste time in diagnosis, and time is of the essence.”
8. Recently diagnosed diabetes
Jones warns that a very small number of people with recently diagnosed diabetes may have pancreatic cancer because the cancer can prevent the pancreas from making enough insulin, which can lead to diabetes. She explains, “If you have some of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and are suddenly diagnosed with diabetes, it should be a warning sign for your GP to consider whether you need a scan to examine your pancreas.”
Nausea, or nausea, can be another symptom of pancreatic cancer, although she points out, “Sometimes people can vomit, but it’s not as common as nausea.”
10. Blood clots
According to Jones, blood clots are an uncommon symptom of pancreatic cancer and one that may occur in people who, for example, are younger and non-smokers and are therefore not normally at risk of blood clots.
“They might present with shortness of breath or a swollen leg and go for a scan and find they have pancreatic cancer,” she says. “It’s exceptional, but clots are a symptom and could mean there’s an underlying problem.”
Fatigue can have many causes, of course, but if you also have other symptoms, it could be linked to pancreatic cancer, Jones warns. “If you’re resting and not being able to recharge your batteries, coupled with some of the other symptoms, like persistent pain or steatorrhea, that physically exhaust a person, that could be another symptom of pancreatic cancer.”
12. Fever, chills and malaise
Such symptoms are uncommon symptoms of pancreatic cancer, but they’re not unheard of and may be related to either the cancer itself or possibly a jaundice-related infection, which Jones says requires immediate medical attention.
13. Difficulty swallowing food
“The cancer can make a person feel full. Although they think the problem is swallowing related, it’s often the fact that she’s just not able to swallow the food,” Jones, who explains that pancreatic cancer doesn’t actually cause problems with the esophagus, says it can only make swallowing feel abnormal.
14. Depression and anxiety
Depression and anxiety with no apparent cause are common symptoms of pancreatic cancer, Jones says. “In and of itself, it’s probably not something that would make you say you probably have pancreatic cancer,” she says, “but bad mood can be associated with aches and pains. Again, it’s about looking at these things as a whole and not in isolation.”