Is Itching a Sign of Pancreatic Cancer?

Medically Reviewed By: Brian M. Wolpin, MD, MPH

Key Takeaway: While itching can be associated with pancreatic cancer, it is not a common symptom of the disease.

Itching that occurs periodically is not a sign of pancreatic cancer. In fact, most people diagnosed with the disease will not experience this symptom.

A potential symptom of pancreatic cancer is progressive itching that intensifies over a few weeks and is accompanied by jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin). If you notice changes to your body, you should consult your doctor.

How are itching and pancreatic cancer related?

Itching can occur in cases where the pancreatic tumor blocks the body’s bile duct. The bile duct contains bile, an alkaline fluid secreted by the liver, that aids in the absorption of nutrients (including vitamins) and ultimately the removal of waste. 

The liver constantly produces bile, and in instances where the bile duct is blocked, bile will start to back up in the liver and eventually get into the bloodstream. This can cause itching along with jaundice — a yellowing of the skin.

Placing a stent (a tube designed to keep a vessel or passageway open) to unclog the duct will in most instances eliminate the itching by allowing the liver to return to its normal function.

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that originates in the pancreas, an organ located in the abdomen that helps the body digest food and convert it into energy. A relatively small organ, the pancreas is only six inches by two inches, with a majority of it located behind the stomach.

Brian M. Wolpin, MD, MPH.

Because pancreatic cancer may only cause vague, nonspecific symptoms, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network encourages anyone experiencing one or more of the following symptoms to consult their primary care doctor:

  • Abdominal (belly) or mid-back pain
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Jaundice
  • Nausea
  • Changes in stool

These symptoms are unlikely to be the result of pancreatic cancer. However, it’s still important to consult your doctor to determine the cause of these symptoms.

Improving pancreatic cancer detection

Due to the organ’s size and location, roughly 80% of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed with an advanced cancer that is difficult to cure. Most patients are tested for pancreatic cancer after they start developing symptoms, since few screening tests are available. By this point, the cancer has typically spread outside of the pancreas to other parts of the body.

Because pancreatic tumors are difficult to spot, researchers at Dana-Farber’s Hale Family Research Center are currently working to pinpoint markers in the bloodstream that would indicate the presence of the disease when it is still at an early stage. By identifying blood-based markers specific to pancreatic cancer, researchers hope to identify the disease long before it causes symptoms and becomes difficult to cure.

While the exact causes of pancreatic cancer are diverse, various risk factors have been identified, including cigarette smoking, diabetes, and obesity. In addition, individuals who have a strong family history of pancreatic cancer are more likely to get the disease themselves. By creating risk models that take into account these and other factors, researchers are working to better identify who would benefit from screenings for pancreatic cancer.

About the Medical Reviewer

Brian M. Wolpin, MD, MPH

Dr. Wolpin received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 2001. He subsequently completed his residency in Internal Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and his fellowship in Medical Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He joined the staff of DFCI and Brigham and Women's Hospital in 2007, where he is a medical oncologist and clinical investigator in the Center for Gastrointestinal Oncology. His research focuses on biomarkers and novel therapeutics in gastrointestinal malignancies, and mechanisms by which lifestyle factors interact with malignant risk and progression.