Which clinical history findings are characteristic of pancreatic cancer?

Updated: Oct 02, 2020
  • Author: Tomislav Dragovich, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: N Joseph Espat, MD, MS, FACS  more...
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The early clinical diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is fraught with difficulty. Unfortunately, the initial symptoms of the disease are often quite nonspecific and subtle in onset. Consequently, these symptoms can be easily attributed to other processes unless the physician has a high index of suspicion for the possibility of underlying pancreatic carcinoma.

Patients typically report the gradual onset of nonspecific symptoms such as anorexia, malaise, nausea, fatigue, and midepigastric or back pain.

Significant weight loss is a characteristic feature of pancreatic cancer.

Midepigastric pain is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer, with radiation of the pain to the midback or lower-back region sometimes occurring. Radiation of the pain to the back is worrisome, as it indicates retroperitoneal invasion of the splanchnic nerve plexus by the tumor.

Often, the pain is unrelenting in nature, with nighttime pain often being a predominant complaint. Some patients may note increased discomfort after eating. The pain may be worse when the patient is lying flat.

Weight loss may be related to cancer-associated anorexia and/or subclinical malabsorption from pancreatic exocrine insufficiency caused by pancreatic duct obstruction by the cancer. Patients with malabsorption usually complain about diarrhea and malodorous, greasy stools. Nausea and early satiety from gastric outlet obstruction and delayed gastric emptying from the tumor may also contribute to weight loss.

The onset of diabetes mellitus within the previous year is sometimes associated with pancreatic carcinoma. Even so, only about 1% of cases of new-onset diabetes mellitus in adults are related to occult pancreatic cancer. [14] Nevertheless, pancreatic cancer should be at least thought of in a patient older than 70 years with a new diagnosis of diabetes and without any other diabetic risk factors.

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