‘Jaundice is one of the clearest signs of pancreatic cancer,’ says Christopher DiMaio, MD, a gastroenterologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. ‘Often, patients feel fine until one day a friend notices their eyes look yellow, then they go to the doctor and find they have advanced pancreatic cancer.’ Cancers that start near the head of the pancreas can block the bile duct, preventing bile from reaching the intestines, where it helps break down fats and eventually leaves the body in the stool. This bile builds up and causes jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin or eyes.
Place the tip of your finger on the top of your abdomen, just below the breastbone. Then imagine your finger pointing straight back through your body to the spine. That’s a common location that pancreatic cancer patients report feeling pain, says Dr. DiMaio. ‘The pain is hard to describe, but a dull, internal pain in this area, or radiating around the sides of your abdomen to the back, is a tip-off and you should get it checked out,’ he says. Cancers that start in the body or tail of the pancreas can press on nearby organs, causing pain. If the cancer spreads to the nerves surrounding the pancreas, this can cause back pain.
If your urine starts to look dark (brown or rust colored) this could be a sign of pancreatic cancer. As bilirubin, a substance made by the liver that partly makes up bile, builds up in the blood, urine darkens.
Cancer pressing on the far end of the stomach can cause a partial blockage, making it hard for food to get through; this can cause nausea, vomiting, and pain that tends to be worse after eating.
‘Unexplained or chronic pancreatitis can be caused by a small tumor on the pancreas,’ says Dr. DiMaio. Though pancreatitis is more commonly caused by gallstones, new medications, or alcohol abuse, if you develop the condition and don’t have any of those risk factors, it could be something more serious, he says.
If your mouth is a mess of bad breath, inflamed gums, or loose teeth, it could be more than bad hygiene. ‘Pancreatic cancer patients are known to be susceptible to gum disease, cavities, and poor oral health in general,’ according to researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center, who conducted a study examining mouth bacteria of pancreatic cancer patients versus people without. They found that the presence of the same bacteria that has been tied to dental diseases like periodontitis (inflammation of the gums) put participants at a 59 percent greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer than those whose mouths didn’t contain the bacteria.
A diabetes diagnosis doesn’t mean you’ll get pancreatic cancer, but it is associated with an increased risk. One Mayo Clinic study found that 40 percent of pancreatic patients were diagnosed with diabetes in the months before their cancer diagnosis. The pancreas is responsible for creating insulin, so the early stages of the tumor may affect the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin, causing diabetes, says Dr. DiMaio.
If you suddenly have little to no appetite, or if you’re losing weight without changing your diet or exercise regimen, see your doctor; this is a common sign of pancreatic cancer, says Dr. DiMaio.