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Can Jaundice Be a Sign of Cancer?

Cancers of the pancreas, liver, and bile duct don’t always show symptoms early on. But sometimes, they give off a warning sign that’s easy to spot—jaundice.

Marked by a yellowing of the skin or eyes, jaundice happens when a person’s blood contains high levels of bilirubin—a component of bile made by the liver. Bilirubin levels can build up when bile ducts that connect the pancreas to the liver become blocked or obstructed, making it harder for bile to drain as it should, explained Jason A. Castellanos, MD, MS, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Those blockages and obstructions can be caused by a host of different conditions, from hepatitis to more benign issues like gallstones. But, they can also be the result of a tumor in the pancreas, bile duct, or (less commonly) the liver.

A tumor in the pancreas, bile duct, or liver isn’t guaranteed to cause jaundice, but when it does, “it’s one of the first symptoms a patient may notice,” Castellanos said.

In addition to the hallmark yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, jaundice can also cause darker-than-normal urine and light or clay-colored stools. It might make your skin itchy too, but it typically isn’t a painful itch. Jaundice caused by pancreatic, bile duct, or liver cancer might also be accompanied by unexplained weight loss.

It’s important to also be aware of other potential signs and symptoms of these cancers. In addition to jaundice, cancers of the pancreas can cause pain in the upper abdomen or back, painful arm or leg swelling, a burning or bloated feeling in the stomach, or stools that float or smell unusually bad. Pancreatic, bile duct, and liver cancer may also make you lose your appetite or frequently feel nauseous.

Don’t Delay Medical Treatment

Only a detailed medical workup can confirm what’s causing a person’s jaundice, and because of this, you should seek medical attention if you or a loved one notices it.

“Jaundice doesn’t automatically mean that you have cancer,” Castellanos said. “But no matter what’s behind the jaundice, the patient needs to have a thorough workup and get their bilirubin levels back to normal.”

It’s best to start by calling your primary care provider. They may be able to figure out the underlying cause of your jaundice or refer you to a specialist for more testing.

Whether jaundice turns out to be caused by cancer or another condition, know that taking action right away is the best way to protect your health. And, if you do have cancer, being diagnosed early offers the best chance for treatment success.

“The bottom line is, it’s crucial to identify the cause of jaundice quickly,” Castellanos said.

Learn more about pancreatic, bile duct and liver cancer care at Fox Chase.