Pancreatic cancer is projected to strike more than 53,000 Americans in the coming year. An estimated 43,000 will die from the disease, making it one of the deadliest forms of cancer in the United States. Understanding the symptoms and risks, however, can help people gain access to earlier intervention, which could lead to life-preserving treatments.

Pancreatic cancer is known to be especially deadly because this disease is often only detected in later stages. This is because symptoms at the earliest stages tend to be rather vague, if they present at all. The most common symptoms include:

  • Jaundice
  • A darkening of the urine
  • Light-colored stools or greasy stools
  • Itchy skin
  • Back or abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Liver or gallbladder enlargement
  • Now-onset type 2 Diabetes

Since many of these symptoms are associated with a host of other conditions, pancreatic cancer may go undetected for a long period of time. That is why understanding personal risk factors may also be important to help lead to an earlier diagnosis. Risks include smoking, obesity, new-onset diabetes, family history, chronic pancreatitis and certain genetic syndromes, among others. When symptoms appear in people at higher risk for this disease, doctors may recommend screening.

Pancreatic cancer has several different stages the disease may progress through. They are:

  • Stage 0 – At this stage, the tumor is generally confined to the top layers of the duct cells.
  • Stage IA – This stage of tumor is confined to the pancreas itself and is 2 cm across or less.
  • Stage IB – At this point, a tumor will measure to more than 2 cm across, but will not have spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant sites.
  • Stage IIA – Tumors at this stage have grown outside the pancreas, but have not spread to major blood vessels, nerves or nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage IIB – The tumor at this stage can be confined to the pancreas or outside it, but will not affect major blood vessels or nerve. Spread to nearby lymph nodes, however, will have occurred.
  • Stage III – Tumors at this stage have grown outside the pancreas and into nearby major blood vessels or nerves. Cancer may or may not have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV – Cancer at this stage will affect distant sites in addition to the pancreas and nearby tissue.

People who are concerned about pancreatic cancer are urged to talk to their doctors. Understanding personal risks and symptoms can help lead to a more rapid diagnosis should the disease present.