Pancreatic cancer is tricky to identify. In the early stages, there might not be much—if any—indication something is even wrong, and that's exactly why doctors often refer to it as a "silent killer." Most recently, the deadly disease took the life of actor Willie Garson. Best known for his role as Stanford Blatch on Sex and the City, Garson was 57 when he died of pancreatic cancer on Sept. 21 after "a short illness," People reported.
Of the 60,430 cases of pancreatic cancerthat the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates will be diagnosed in 2021, many won't be discovered until the cancer is at an advanced stage or has spread to other organs, as most signs and symptoms show up later on. That's why it's so important to know everything to be on the lookout for in order to catch the cancer as early as possible. Here are 13 pancreatic cancer warning signs you need to know, according to doctors.
RELATED: 20 Warning Signs Your Liver Sends You.
Persistent abdominal pain
Because the pancreas is located in your abdomen behind your stomach, a common symptom of pancreatic cancer is experiencing a dull pain in the stomach due to it pressing on the organ. According to Pancreatic Cancer UK, it's something that occurs in around 70 percent of pancreatic cancer cases. It might start off as just a little discomfort—something you brush off. But it can become more painful and persistent, signaling something is definitely wrong.
Stomach pain isn't the only type of discomfort that goes hand-in-hand with pancreatic cancer. According to the ACS, back pain is common, too, and occurs when the cancer spreads to the nerves surrounding the pancreas. While both stomach and back pain have many different possible causes, it's never a bad idea to check in with your doctor—especially when it's occurring often.
Itchy skin has many causes, and pancreatic cancer is one of them. The ACS says the itchiness occurs when bilirubin builds up in the skin, and you may notice it alongside the yellowing of your skin due to jaundice. If that's the case, slathering on lotion isn't going to help. Instead, it's important to book an appointment with a doctor as soon as you can.
Not many people realize pancreatic cancer can be responsible for depression, even before you realize you have it. Harvey B. Simon, MD, an internal medicine doctor in Boston, Massachusetts, told Harvard Health it's something those with pancreatic cancer may develop as the cancer grows. A 2018 study published in the journal Pancreas also backed that up, stating that there's a pancreatic cancer-depression relationship, "particularly sudden-onset depression and anxiety in people who have never experienced this condition before." Being aware of this connection could help you get diagnosed and treated earlier.
Unexplained weight loss
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are a few different reasons why weight loss can signal pancreatic cancer. As the cancer progresses, it consumes the body's energy, making you lose weight. And if the tumor is pressing on your stomach, it might make you feel full or make it hard for you to eat.
Also, when your pancreas isn't functioning properly, it's not making enough of the digestive juices required to help your body process nutrients in the first place.
If you start to experience light-colored, oily, or watery stools—and/or stools that are incredibly foul-smelling—when your bathroom habits are generally fine, pancreatic cancer is something to be aware of. According to Maryland Oncology Hematology, the issue occurs when the bile duct is blocked, which prevents bilirubin from getting to your stools and makes it hard for your body to digest fats properly.
If your once-strong self starts to feel very weak out of nowhere, your body might be trying to tell you something isn't right. The Moffitt Cancer Center says a common symptom of pancreatic cancer is experiencing extreme weakness in the limbs—something that doesn't just happen with this type of cancer, but many different types. That's because cancer essentially steals the nutrients your body needs in order for it to grow and cause harm.
Like feeling weak, pancreatic cancer—and all cancers, for that matter—can also make you feel extremely fatigued. If there's no other explanation for why you're so tired, it's something to get checked out. A 2018 study published in the journal Acta BioMedica notes cancer-related fatigue is defined as feeling physically exhausted due to cancer or cancer treatments, and it can greatly impact your typical daily activities.
Yellowing of the skin and eyes
Noticing your skin and eyes turning yellow is something you should never ignore. Jaundice can be due to conditions like liver disease and hepatitis, but Matthew Walsh, MD, a surgeon in Cleveland, Ohio, said on a Cleveland Clinic podcast that it can also go hand-in-hand with pancreatic cancer. "You can have a relatively small tumor in the very end of the pancreas that can cause jaundice," he said. "[It's] one of the symptoms and that can occur relatively early."
While most people assume jaundice only affects your eyes and skin, that build-up of bilirubin in the body can also result in dark urine as well. According to the ACS, it's actually sometimes the first sign of jaundice, even before you notice a change in your skin or eyes. The darkening of the urine occurs when the levels of bilirubin in the blood increase, which changes urine to a brown color.
According to Walsh, developing diabetes suddenly at an older age is never something to take lightly. "You should look at the pancreas, because that can be one of the hallmarks," he said on the podcast. But how does that even happen? Johns Hopkins University says pancreatic cancer can trigger a case of sudden onset diabetes, or late onset diabetes, through "destroying the cells that make insulin, causing blood sugar levels to rise."
Nausea or vomiting
When you have pancreatic cancer, you may experience nausea or vomiting. According to the ACS, this occurs when the cancer puts pressure on your stomach, making it difficult for your food to pass through. It can also make you feel really nauseous, so much so that it might even cause you to vomit.
For more helpful health information sent straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
According to GI Associates and Endoscopy Center, deep vein thrombosis—when a blood clot occurs in a large vein—can sometimes be the first sign of pancreatic cancer, and it typically shows up as redness, swelling, and pain in whichever leg has the blood clot. Since a piece of the blood clot can make its way to your lungs, making it hard to breathe, it's something to get checked out immediately.