The first symptoms of pancreatic cancer and its evolution in 4 stages

Presse Santé

When cancer that first forms in the pancreas spreads to other parts of the body, doctors classify it as stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The pancreas is an organ that supports the digestive system and helps the body regulate blood sugar.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect at an early stage because the pancreas is located deep in the body. People usually have no symptoms until the tumor has grown very large or the cancer has spread to other organs. According to research conducted in 2015, approximately 53% of people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed when the cancer is stage 4.

Doctors are unable to cure stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Treatment aims to extend the person’s life, improve quality, and manage symptoms. Knowing what to expect can help people and loved ones cope with it. In this article, we describe the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and describe the 4 stages.

What are the 4 stages of pancreatic cancer?

Talking to a therapist can help cope with the emotional pressure of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. When diagnosing pancreatic cancer, doctors aim to identify how much cancer is in the body and whether it has spread beyond the pancreas. This process, called staging, helps indicate the severity of the cancer and the best treatments.

The 4 stages of pancreatic cancer are:

Stage 0: Cancer is confined to the upper layer of cells in the pancreatic duct.
Stage 1: The cancer is confined to the cells of the pancreas and the tumor is no larger than 4 centimeters.
Stage 2: The tumor may be larger. Or the cancer may have spread to three lymph nodes but not to any other organ.
Stage 3: Cancer can grow outside the pancreas, in nearby blood vessels. It may also have spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage 4: Cancer has spread to distant sites, such as the liver or lungs.
When cancer spreads to distant organs, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells are always cells of the pancreas, even if they grow on other organs.

Pancreatic cancer can metastasize to many places, including:

– liver
– the stomach
– the diaphragm
– the adrenal glands
– lungs
– bone
– the peritoneum, the tissue that lines the abdomen.

Sometimes doctors can only identify the stage of the cancer by performing surgery.

To determine a person’s future prospects, doctors consider the stage of the cancer and how abnormal the cancer cells are. They also take into account the person’s general state of health. When the cancer has spread to other organs, surgeons are unable to remove or treat it. Stage 4 cancer treatments focus on managing pain and other symptoms to improve quality of life.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to detect at an early stage because it usually causes no symptoms at this stage. At a later stage, cancer can disrupt the functioning of the gallbladder, liver, and bile ducts. This can lead to:

– itchy skin
– dark urine
– pale stools
– abdominal pain
– jaundice, i.e. yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes.

Other non-specific symptoms may include

– unexplained weight loss
– lack of appetite or quick satiety after eating
– indigestion
– depression
– sudden onset of type 2 diabetes that is difficult to control.


Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis and Management

de la Cruz, MSD and Young, AP (2014). Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis and Management.

Stages of pancreatic cancer. (nd).

Puckett, Y. and Garfield, K. (2020). Cancer of the pancreas.

Tas, F., et al. (2013). Prognostic factors in metastatic pancreatic cancer: Older patients are associated with reduced overall survival.

* Presse Santé is committed to transmitting health knowledge in a language accessible to all. IN NO EVENT, the information provided cannot replace the advice of a healthcare professional.

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