What is pancreatic cancer?

  • Pancreatic cancer is a cancer that's found anywhere in the pancreas.
  • The pancreas is an organ in the top part of your tummy.
  • It helps you digest your food and makes hormones, such as insulin.
  • How serious pancreatic cancer is depends on where it is in the pancreas, how big it is, if it has spread, and your general health.

Important

It's important to get any symptoms of pancreatic cancer checked as soon as possible.

Symptoms

Pancreatic cancer may not have any symptoms, or they might be hard to spot.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • the whites of your eyes or your skin turn yellow (jaundice), you may also have itchy skin, darker pee and paler poo than usual
  • loss of appetite or losing weight without trying to
  • feeling tired or having no energy
  • a high temperature, or feeling hot or shivery

Other symptoms can affect your digestion, such as:

  • feeling or being sick
  • diarrhoea or constipation, or other changes in your poo
  • pain at the top part of your tummy and your back, which may feel worse when you are eating or lying down and better when you lean forward
  • symptoms of indigestion, such as feeling bloated

If you have another condition like irritable bowel syndrome you may get symptoms like these regularly.

You might find you get used to them. But it's important to be checked by a GP if your symptoms change, get worse, or do not feel normal for you.

Get advice from NHS 111 Wales (if available in your area) or 0845 46 47 now if:

  • the whites of your eyes or your skin turn yellow
  • you're being sick for more than 2 days
  • you have diarrhoea for more than 7 days
  • you have symptoms that you are worried about, but are not sure where to get help

111 will tell you what to do. They can arrange a phone call from a nurse or doctor if you need one.

See a GP if you have:

  • lost a noticeable amount of weight over the last 6 to 12 months without trying
  • other symptoms of pancreatic cancer that get worse or do not get better after 2 weeks
  • a condition that causes symptoms with your digestion that are not getting better after 2 weeks of using your usual treatments

Important

Many of these symptoms are very common and can be caused by many different conditions.

Having them does not definitely mean you have pancreatic cancer. But it's important to get them checked by a GP.

This is because if they're caused by cancer, finding it early makes it more treatable.

What happens at the GP appointment

The GP may feel your tummy.

They may ask you to give a pee sample or have a blood test.

The GP may refer you to see a specialist in hospital for more tests if they think you have a condition that needs to be investigated.

This may be an urgent referral, usually within 2 weeks, if you have certain symptoms. This does not definitely mean you have cancer.

Find out more

Pancreatic Cancer UK: visiting a GP for symptoms that could be caused by pancreatic cancer

Who can get it

Who is more likely to get pancreatic cancer

Anyone can get pancreatic cancer. It's not always clear what causes it.

You might be more likely to get it if you:

  • are over the age of 75, it is not very common in people under 40
  • have certain medical conditions, such as long-term chronic pancreatitis
  • there is a history of pancreatic cancer in your family

Many pancreatic cancers are also linked to your lifestyle.

How to reduce your chance of getting pancreatic cancer

You cannot always prevent pancreatic cancer. But making healthy changes can lower your chances of getting it.

Do

  • try to lose weight if you are overweight
  • cut down on how much red and processed meat (such as ham, bacon and salami) you eat
  • try to cut down on alcohol – avoid drinking more than 14 units a week
  • try to quit smoking

It's important to get any symptoms of pancreatic cancer checked by a GP.

Anyone can get pancreatic cancer, even if you do not think you have a higher chance of getting it.

Tests and next steps

You will need more tests and scans to check for pancreatic cancer if a GP refers you to a specialist.

These tests can include:

You may not have all these tests.

These tests can also help find problems in other nearby organs such as your bile ducts, gallbladder or liver.

Getting your results

It can take several weeks to get the results of your tests.

Try not to worry if your results are taking a long time to get to you. It does not definitely mean anything is wrong.

You can call the hospital or GP if you are worried. They should be able to update you.

A specialist will explain what the results mean and what will happen next. You may want to bring someone with you for support.

If you're told you have pancreatic cancer

Being told you have pancreatic cancer can feel overwhelming. You may be feeling anxious about what will happen next.

It can help to bring someone with you to any appointments you have.

A group of specialists will look after you throughout your diagnosis, treatment and beyond.

Your team will include a clinical nurse specialist who will be your main point of contact during and after treatment.

You can ask them any questions you have.

Important

Macmillan Cancer Support has a free helpline that's open every day from 8am to 8pm.

They're there to listen if you have anything you want to talk about.

Call 0808 808 00 00

Next steps

If you've been told you have pancreatic cancer, the specialists will use the results of some of the tests and scans to help find out the size of the cancer and how far it's spread (called the stage).

You may need to have more tests done.

The specialists will use the results of these tests and work with you to decide on the best treatment plan for you.

Find out more

Pancreatic Cancer UK: information and support if you have just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer

Treatment

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to treat.

The treatment you have will depend on:

  • the size and type of pancreatic cancer you have
  • where it is
  • if it has spread
  • your general health

It may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and supportive care.

The specialist care team looking after you will:

  • explain the treatments, benefits and side effects
  • work with you to create a treatment plan that is best for you
  • help you manage any side effects, including changes to your diet to help you digest your food

You'll have regular check-ups during and after any treatments. You may also have tests and scans.

If you have any symptoms or side effects that you are worried about, talk to your specialists. You do not need to wait for your next check-up.

Surgery

Your treatment will depend on if the cancer can be removed or not.

  • if pancreatic cancer is found early and it has not spread, you may be able to have surgery to remove it
  • if the cancer cannot be removed, you may have surgery to help control some symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Surgery to remove pancreatic cancer

There are several surgeries used to treat pancreatic cancer.

Surgery will remove part or, in a small number of cases, all the pancreas. They may also need to remove all or parts of other organs around the pancreas.

Recovery from surgery to treat pancreatic cancer can take a long time. The specialist team looking after you will discuss all the benefits and side effects.

Find out more

Pancreatic Cancer UK: types of surgery to remove pancreatic cancer

Surgery to help control symptoms of pancreatic cancer

This can include surgery to:

  • unblock the bile duct or stop it getting blocked, which helps with jaundice
  • unblock the first part of the small intestine (duodenum) or to stop it getting blocked, which helps with feeling or being sick
  • bypass a blockage in the bile duct or small intestine (duodenum), which helps with jaundice and feeling or being sick

Many of these procedures are done using endoscopy. Where the surgeon uses a long, thin, flexible tube to reach the blockage or organ.

The aim of these operations is to help improve your symptoms, not to cure the cancer.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses medicines to kill cancer cells.

You may have chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer:

  • to control and improve the symptoms if you are not able to have surgery because you are very unwell, or the cancer cannot be removed by surgery, sometimes with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)
  • after surgery to help stop the cancer coming back
  • before surgery to help make the cancer smaller
  • to treat early cancer

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays of radiation to kill cancer cells.

Radiotherapy is not often used to treat pancreatic cancer. But you may have radiotherapy:

  • to treat early cancer if you are not able to have surgery because you are very unwell or the cancer cannot be removed by surgery – it's usually combined with chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)
  • with chemotherapy before surgery to help make the cancer smaller
  • to help control and improve the symptoms of advanced cancer

Supportive care

There are several other treatments that can help you feel better and improve the symptoms of pancreatic cancer. This is called supportive care.

It can help with many symptoms of pancreatic cancer, including:

  • problems eating and weight loss, including prescribing enzyme replacement tablets to help you digest your food better
  • relieving any pain
  • tiredness
  • feeling or being sick, including prescribing anti-sickness tablets

The specialists will talk to you about what supportive care you might need.

Find out more

Pancreatic Cancer UK: management of pancreatic cancer symptoms and side effects

Macmillan Cancer Support: treatment for pancreatic cancer

Macmillan Cancer Support: controlling the symptoms of pancreatic cancer

What happens if you've been told your cancer cannot be cured

If you have advanced pancreatic cancer it might be very hard to treat. It may not be possible to cure the cancer.

If this is the case, the aim of your treatment will be to limit the cancer and its symptoms, and help you live longer.

Finding out the cancer cannot be cured can be very hard news to take in.

You will be referred to a special team of doctors and nurses called the palliative care team or symptom control team.

They will work with you to help manage your symptoms and make you feel more comfortable.

The clinical nurse specialist or palliative care team can also help you and your loved ones get any support you need.

Find out more

Macmillan Cancer Support: end of life care

Where to find help and support

You and your loved ones will be supported throughout your treatment by a group of specialists.

The clinical nurse specialist, or another member of your specialist team, will be able to give you information on local support services that you may find helpful.

There are also national cancer charities that offer support and information about pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer UK

Dedicated charity for anyone affected by pancreatic cancer.

Website: www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk
Helpline: 0808 801 0707
Pancreatic Cancer UK: ask a nurse service
Pancreatic Cancer UK: online forum
Pancreatic Cancer UK: local support groups

Macmillan Cancer Support

Information and support for anyone affected by cancer.

Website: www.macmillan.org.uk
Helpline: 0808 808 00 00
Macmillan Cancer Support: support line service
Macmillan Cancer Support: online forum
Macmillan Cancer Support: find local support services

Cancer Research UK

Information and support for anyone affected by cancer.

Website: www.cancerresearchuk.org
Nurse helpline: 0808 800 4040
Cancer Research UK: ask a nurse service
Cancer Research UK: online cancer chat forum
Cancer Research UK: find a clinical trial service

Marie Curie

Care and support for anyone affected by a terminal illness.

Website: www.mariecurie.org.uk
Helpline: 0800 090 2309
Marie Curie: patient services



The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS UK NHS website nhs.uk
Last Updated: 09/03/2022 13:56:21