New symptoms identified could help doctors diagnose pancreatic cancer earlier

November 9, 2021

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival among all common cancers, with the five-year survival rate pegged at about 7% in the United Kingdom. The reason: Unfortunately, most people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed at a late stage.

 But researchers at the University of Oxford now have identified a series of symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer, including two previously unrecognized warning signs—feeling thirsty and having dark urine—they announced in a study presented at Europe’s largest annual cancer conference, the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Festival on Monday, November 8, reports EurekAlert.

 The study has confirmed a further 21 signs of pancreatic cancer and shown that patients often have some symptoms of the disease up to a year before their cancers are diagnosed, and other alarming symptoms three months before diagnosis.

 The researchers hope their findings could improve survival by helping GPs diagnose the disease earlier, especially when patients present with several seemingly non-specific symptoms.

 Dr. Weiqi Liao, a data scientist at the University of Oxford, and his colleagues looked at data from 24,236 patients who were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in England between 2000 and 2017 using a large electronic database (QResearch). The researchers looked at patients’ symptoms at different time points before they were diagnosed with cancer and compared them to other patients’ symptoms who were not diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

 Yellowing of the skin (jaundice) and bleeding in the stomach or intestine were the two serious symptoms most associated with being diagnosed with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common type of pancreatic cancer, and in pancreatic neuroendocrine neoplasms (PNEN), a rarer form of pancreatic cancer. In addition, researchers identified thirst and dark urine as previously unknown symptoms for PDAC.

 Dr. Liao said: “When pancreatic cancer is diagnosed earlier, patients have a higher chance of survival. It is possible to diagnose patients when they visit their GP, but both patients and GPs need to be aware of the symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer.”

 The research, which is the largest study of its kind, found 23 symptoms linked with the diagnosis of PDAC (yellowing of the skin, bleeding in the stomach or intestine, problems swallowing, diarrhea, change in bowel habits, vomiting, indigestion, abdominal mass, abdominal pain, weight loss, constipation, fat in stool, abdominal swelling, nausea, flatulence, heartburn, fever, tiredness, appetite loss, itching, back pain, thirst, and dark urine).

 Nine symptoms were linked with PNEN (yellowing of the skin, blood in stool, diarrhoea, change in bowel habits, vomiting, indigestion, abdominal mass, abdominal pain, and weight loss).

 While most symptoms were not specific to pancreatic cancer and could be due to other benign conditions, the researchers found patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer had a higher chance of experiencing some of these non-specific symptoms one year before diagnosis.

 Dr Liao said: “These new findings enable us to conduct further work on understanding symptoms that could suggest pancreatic cancer. This will help GPs to make decisions about who to refer for urgent tests, especially when patients have several seemingly non-specific symptoms.”

 The study ahs been published in the September 21, 2021 edition of the British Journal of General Practice.

 Research contact: @EurekAlert