When pancreatic cancer spreads to other areas of the body, a person may experience new symptoms that are not directly linked to the tumors in the pancreas.

In the later stages, pancreatic cancer starts spreading to other areas of the body. This is known as metastasis. New symptoms may emerge depending on where the cancer cells travel or form other tumors. This can include the liver, bones, kidneys, or lungs.

This article will review the signs and symptoms that a person may experience when pancreatic cancer has spread, the stage at which people typically receive a diagnosis, and the treatment options available.

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Pancreatic cancer is a type of carcinoma that develops in the cells of the pancreatic duct. In the United States, it is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths.

Pancreatic cancer can cause several symptoms. However, these usually show up only in the later stages of cancer. The symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include:

Learn more about pancreatic cancer symptoms.

In the later stages, pancreatic cancer can spread to other organs, such as the liver, lungs, bones, and kidneys. When this happens, a person may start experiencing symptoms specific to cancer in those areas of the body.

Symptoms in the liver

When cancer spreads to the liver, a person may experience additional symptoms such as:

Symptoms in the bones

Pancreatic cancer that spreads to the bones may cause:

  • bone pain
  • pain when lifting or carrying weight
  • swelling
  • growth of masses on the bones
  • bone tenderness when touched
  • bone fractures
  • skin changes
  • open wounds
  • nerve compression and pain due to the growth of tumor masses, especially in the spine
  • hypercalcemia
  • anemia due to bone marrow problems (myelophthisis anemia)

Pancreatic cancer most commonly spreads to the following bones:

  • the spine, especially around the lungs, abdomen, and lower back
  • the ribs
  • the sacrum, or the end of the spinal cord
  • the scapula, or shoulder blade
  • the pelvis

Symptoms in the lungs

If pancreatic cancer spreads to the lungs, a person may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

Symptoms in the kidneys

Pancreatic cancer may spread to the kidneys. If this happens, people may experience:

In most cases, doctors find and diagnose pancreatic cancer once it is in the advanced stages. Pancreatic cancer is hard to diagnose in earlier stages because the pancreas is located deep in the body, and early tumors are extremely difficult to see or feel during routine physical exams.

For the same reason, pancreatic cancer does not typically cause any symptoms until the cancer is large and has spread to other organs.

Still, having regular screening tests for this cancer can potentially help healthcare professionals spot any atypical formations in the pancreas in the early stages.

Screening for pancreatic cancer can involve MRI scans, endoscopic ultrasound, or specialized imaging such as magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography.

Doctors usually recommend screening at 50 years of age or possibly earlier if a person has a family history of pancreatic cancer.

Screening is likely to be necessary annually or at intervals that a healthcare professional recommends.

Currently, the only cure available for pancreatic cancer is surgical resection. However, this is an option in only 20% of cases at the time of diagnosis. Before doctors perform surgery, they may recommend that a person undergo chemotherapy for 4–6 months to shrink the tumors.

Specialists may also use chemotherapy as a palliative treatment for people who cannot undergo surgery.

Palliative care professionals may provide an additional level of support to help address symptoms, pain, and quality of life issues when a person is getting treatment and in the later stages of cancer.

Doctors may also prescribe other medications to help with pain, including:

Learn more about treatments for pancreatic cancer.

People with pancreatic cancer can join a local cancer support group.

Many nonprofit organizations offer useful resources and ongoing support to people with this disease and their families, including:

Pancreatic cancer does not usually cause any symptoms until its later stages, when it has spread to other parts of the body. As the cancer progresses, people may develop jaundice, weight loss, loss of appetite, or other symptoms.

The specific signs that pancreatic cancer has spread will depend on where the cancer cells travel. Pancreatic cancer can spread to the lungs, kidneys, bones, or liver. Once the cancer reaches these areas, a person can experience various signs or symptoms specific to cancer in those regions.

A person should consult a healthcare professional for a diagnosis, which may require screening tests. The healthcare professional can advise on the next steps. Support is available through various nonprofit organizations or local groups.