Pancreatic Cancer

What do I need to know about pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer starts in the pancreas, an organ located just behind the stomach. The pancreas helps digest food by making digestive enzymes. The pancreas also makes hormones, such as insulin, to help balance blood sugar levels.

What increases my risk for pancreatic cancer?

  • You smoke cigarettes.

  • You have diabetes.

  • You have had long-term pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).

  • You work with chemicals, such as gasoline.

  • You have a close family member who also had pancreatic cancer, or other diseases such as familial adenomatous polyposis .

What are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

During the early stages of pancreatic cancer, there are usually no signs or symptoms. The tumor may have grown and spread outside the pancreas by the time you experience symptoms. The following are the main signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)

  • Lower back pain

  • Loss of appetite or weight loss without trying

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Fatigue and weakness

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

You may need more than one of the following tests:

  • Abdominal ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to show pictures on a monitor. An ultrasound may be done to show a tumor in the pancreas.

  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your abdomen. The pictures may show the size and location of the tumor. You may be given a dye before the pictures are taken to help caregivers see the pictures better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye.

  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your abdomen. An MRI may show the size and location of the tumor. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the caregiver if you have any metal in or on your body.

  • Biopsy: Your caregiver will inset a needle and remove a small sample of pancreatic tissue. The sample is sent to a lab and tested for cancer.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

  • Surgery: You may need surgery to remove the pancreas. This is done for tumors that are small and have not spread to other parts of the body. Surgery may also be done to place a stent (tube) into the bile duct and decrease jaundice.

  • Chemotherapy: This medicine is used to treat cancer by killing cancer cells. Chemotherapy may also be used to shrink lymph nodes that have cancer in them.

  • Radiation therapy: This treatment uses x-rays or gamma rays to treat cancer. Radiation kills cancer cells and may stop the cancer from spreading.

What are the risks of pancreatic cancer?

You may bleed more than expected or have problems absorbing food after surgery. You may get a blood clot in your leg or arm. The clot may travel to your heart or brain and cause life-threatening problems, such as a heart attack or stroke. After treatment, you may need medicine to control your blood sugar level. If untreated, your symptoms may get worse. Even with treatment, your cancer may return or be life-threatening.

How can I care for myself before and during treatment?

  • Rest as needed: Return to activities slowly, and do more as you feel stronger.

  • Eat healthy foods: Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Several small meals a day may be easier to eat than a few large meals. You may need to change the way you eat to control your blood sugar levels. A dietitian may help you plan healthy meals. Ask if you need to include pancreatic enzyme supplements to help with digestion.

  • Do not smoke: If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. Smoking increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. Ask for information if you need help quitting.

Where can find support and more information?


  • American Cancer Society
    250 Williams Street
    Atlanta , GA 30303
    Phone: 1- 800 - 227-2345
    Web Address:

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have chills, cough, or feel weak.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have a fever.

  • Your wound is swollen, red, or has pus coming from it.

  • Your arm or leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.

  • You suddenly feel lightheaded and short of breath.

  • You have chest pain when you take a deep breath or cough. You cough up blood.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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