What are the signs and symptoms 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 most characteristic sign of pancreatic carcinoma of the head of the pancreas is painless obstructive jaundice. Patients with this sign may come to medical attention before their tumor grows large enough to cause abdominal pain. These patients usually notice a darkening of their urine, lightening of their stools before they or their families notice the change in skin pigmentation. Pruritus may accompany and often precedes clinical obstructive jaundice. Pruritus can often be the patient's most distressing symptom.

Physicians can usually recognize clinical jaundice when the total bilirubin reaches 2.5-3 mg%. Patients and their families do not usually notice clinical jaundice until the total bilirubin reaches 6-8 mg%. 

Depression is reported to be more common in patients with pancreatic cancer than in patients with other abdominal tumors. In some patients, depression may be the most prominent presenting symptom. This may in part be secondary to the high frequency of delayed diagnosis with this disease. In addition, although patients may not communicate it to their families, they are often aware that a serious illness of some kind is occurring in them.

A study by Turaga et al determined that male patients with pancreatic adenocarcinoma have a risk of suicide that is almost 11 times higher than the remainder of the population. [43] Patients who undergo surgery are more likely to commit suicide, specifically in the early postoperative period.

Migratory thrombophlebitis (ie, Trousseau sign) and venous thrombosis also occur with higher frequency in patients with pancreatic cancer and may be the first presentation. Marantic endocarditis may develop in pancreatic cancer, occasionally being confused with subacute bacterial endocarditis.

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