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Doctors admit they struggle to spot early signs of pancreatic cancer

Doctors admit they struggle to spot early signs of pancreatic cancer and more than HALF of patients don’t find out they have the disease until it has spread around the body

  • A poll of doctors found they often call the disease ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’
  • The symptoms are often mistaken for indigestion, acid reflux or back strain
  • Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly, with 10,000 or so diagnosed a year 

The vast majority of GPs admit they would struggle to spot the early signs of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is the 11th most common cancer in Britain, with around 10,000 people diagnosed each year.

But it is also one of the most deadly – with one in four patients dying within a month of diagnosis.

Only 1 per cent survive for ten years, compared to 78 per cent for breast cancer and 98 per cent for testicular cancer.

Part of the problem is that the disease causes few symptoms in the early stages, so often goes undetected until the cancer is too advanced to treat.

No screening or early detection tests exist for the disease and 53 per cent are diagnosed at stage four of the cancer, when it has spread around the body.

The vast majority of GPs admit they would struggle to spot the early signs of pancreatic cancer, a poll of 1,000 

Polling of 1,000 GPs for Pancreatic Cancer UK reveals only three per cent of GPs said they were very confident they could detect the signs in a patient.

Doctors call the disease ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ because the symptoms – back ache, jaundice and weight loss – are often mistaken for those of indigestion, acid reflux or back strain. 

If doctors do spot the signs, they can send patients for a CT or MRI scan, which can lead to diagnosis and treatment.

But this only works if the signs are spotted in time.

Just 11 per cent said they were equipped to diagnose pancreatic cancer early enough for treatment to be possible.

Diana Jupp, CEO of Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: ‘For too long pancreatic cancer has been able to silently go undetected, devastating families.

‘Thousands of patients a year, still reeling from hearing the word cancer, are told it’s too late, that nothing can be done for them.

‘That has to stop. We have to give doctors the tools they need to detect the warning signs earlier, so they can ensure those who need it, receive treatment as soon as possible.’

Professor Steve Pereira from University College London Hospital is leading a team of scientists aiming to develop simple tests for doctors to use.

‘That would mean thousands more people receiving the most effective treatments, giving patients and their doctors a fighting chance of beating this dreadful disease,’ he said.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘GPs are acutely aware of how important it is to spot symptoms of pancreatic cancer, but it is notoriously difficult to diagnose in primary care, particularly in its early stages, simply because there are often no symptoms, at all – and when symptoms do present they are often initially very vague, and could indicate many other, more common conditions.’


Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal forms of the disease, and around 95 per cent of people who contract it die from it.  

Joan Crawford, Patrick Swayze and Luciano Pavarotti all died of pancreatic cancer.

It is the sixth most common cause of cancer death in the UK – around 10,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year in the UK, alongside about 55,000 in the US.


It is caused by the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the pancreas – a large gland in the digestive system.


Most cases (90 per cent) are in people over the age of 55.

Around half of all new cases occur in people aged 75 or older.

One in 10 cases are attributed to genetics.

Other possible causes include age, smoking and other health conditions, including diabetes.


There is no screening method for pancreatic cancer. 

Pancreatic cancer typically does not show symptoms in the early stages, when it would be more manageable. 

Sufferers tend to start developing the tell-tale signs – jaundice and abdominal pain – around stage 3 or 4, when it has likely already spread to other organs.    


The only effective treatment is removal of the pancreas. 

This proves largely ineffective for those whose cancer has spread to other organs. 

In those cases, palliative care is advised to ease their pain at the end of their life.  



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