Pancreatic cancer

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Pancreatic cancer is a cancer of the pancreas, an organ of your digestive system. Read about the symptoms, types and treatments.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that’s found in the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ that is part of your digestive system in your tummy. It releases digestive juices that help dissolve the food you eat. It also makes hormones that help you regulate your blood sugar. 

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

It’s important to note that pancreatic cancer might not cause any symptoms, or they might be hard to spot.

Some key symptoms include:

  • Yellowing in the whites of your eyes (jaundice)

  • Feeling tired 

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Pain in your upper tummy or back

  • Itchy skin

  • Darker pee

  • Paler poo

  • Indigestion or bloating

  • Becoming more thirsty or passing a lot of urine

How common is pancreatic cancer?

In the UK, pancreatic cancer is the 10th most common cancer and about 10,500 people are diagnosed with it every year.

What are the key types of pancreatic cancer?

There are 2 main types of pancreatic cancer: exocrine and endocrine. 

  • Exocrine pancreatic cancer affects the exocrine cells of the pancreas. This means the exocrine ducts and glands are affected – these structures release digestive juices. This is the most common type of pancreatic cancer.

  • Endocrine pancreatic cancer affects the endocrine gland cells. These glands release hormones to regulate blood sugar levels. This type of cancer is far rarer.

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

Testing for pancreatic cancer can be done in a number of ways. If you have symptoms of pancreatic cancer it’s important that you talk to your doctor. 

If they think you may have pancreatic cancer, you will be sent to the hospital tests. These tests may include:

  • Pancreatic cancer blood tests – these may check your blood count, kidney and liver function and general health. There are also 2 markers, called CEA and CA19-9, that can indicate pancreatic cancer. But they’re not always raised in the presence of pancreatic cancer and they can be elevated due to other conditions too

  • Scans – these might include an ultrasound, PET, MRI or CT

  • A biopsy – this is where a small number of cells from your pancreas are taken and looked at under a microscope to see if they are cancerous. This can either be taken during an endoscopy or through the skin 

  • A laparoscopy – an operation where a small incision is made to look inside your tummy 

Once you’ve had a test for pancreatic cancer, there will be a short wait before you get your test results back from the doctor. If they find that you do have pancreatic cancer, you will be given an appointment to talk about possible treatment options.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Specialists from a hospital will decide the best treatment for you.

Your treatment will depend on a few things:

  • Where your cancer is

  • The size

  • The type 

  • Whether you have cancer in other places

  • Your overall health 

Treatment for pancreatic cancer may include:

  • Surgery – if the cancer is caught early, it may be possible to remove all or part of the pancreas

  • Chemotherapy – this uses anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells  

  • Radiotherapy – this kills cancer cells by using high-energy rays 

  • Symptom-based treatment – this may help tiredness, weight loss and nausea, with the aim of making you feel more comfortable 

These treatments will be discussed with you at your follow-up appointments. You may be recommended one or multiple treatments.

Who’s at risk of getting pancreatic cancer?

Risk factors increase your chance of developing a disease. 

For pancreatic cancer, your risk may be higher if:

  • You’re over the age of 75

  • You smoke or have smoked 

  • You drink a lot of alcohol 

  • You’re overweight

  • You live with chronic pancreatitis 

  • You’ve had another cancer before

  • Someone in your family has or had pancreatic cancer

How to prevent pancreatic cancer

You can lower your risk of cancers, including pancreatic cancer by doing the following:

  • Lose weight if you’re overweight

  • Stop smoking 

  • Drink below the suggested alcohol limit 

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet

When should I speak to a doctor?

If you’re living with any of the symptoms listed above, speak to a doctor. Catching pancreatic cancer earlier could mean more effective treatment. 


Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi