A man thought his itchy skin was caused by a reaction to poison ivy. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after a healthcare worker noticed his skin was slightly yellow.

A man thought his itchy skin was caused by a reaction to poison ivy. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after a healthcare worker noticed his skin was slightly yellow.
A stock image showing a man itching his skin.Getty Images
  • A man who had an itch for weeks thought he had an allergy, but it was cancer causing the symptom.
  • The man's cancer blocked the passage between the liver and gut, so bilirubin built up, causing the itch.

A man was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after he went to the emergency room with an itch that he thought was caused by a poison ivy allergy.

Pancreatic cancer — which starts in the pancreas, an organ in the abdomen — is the fourth most common cause of cancer death in the US, American Society of Clinical Oncology data suggests. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that 62,210 people in the US will get the cancer in 2022, and 49,830 will die from it.

Pancreatic cancer can be a 'silent' disease early on

The man, identified only Brian, had been itching for "several weeks," which he thought was a reaction to poison ivy, according to a Columbus Dispatch article written by the doctor who treated him.

But allergy treatments, like antihistamines and steroids, didn't help, Dr. Erika Kube, an emergency medicine physician, wrote on Sunday.

He was also getting full quickly after eating and had started napping during the day because he felt tired, which wasn't normal for him, she wrote.


According to ASCO, doctors often say that pancreatic cancer is a "silent disease," because it doesn't cause symptoms early on and there are no tests to diagnose it when people don't have symptoms. As the cancer grows, it can cause symptoms including: abdominal pain, bloating, loss of appetite, fever, and unexplained weight loss.

When the physician associate working with Kube examined Brian, they noted that his skin and eyes were yellow. These features can be a sign of pancreatic cancer compressing the common bile duct, a passageway between the liver and gut. When it gets blocked, a substance called bilirubin can build up, causing these symptoms.

The doctors arranged a CT scan, which revealed Brian had a pancreatic cancer compressing his common bile duct.

Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of getting pancreatic cancer

Kube wrote that he didn't have any other family members who had pancreatic cancer or any obvious elements of his lifestyle that may have increased his risk of developing the disease.

Brian's age wasn't disclosed in the piece. People can get pancreatic cancer at any age, but 90% of those diagnosed are older than 55. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and obesity all increase the risk of the cancer, according to ASCO.


Kube admitted Brian to hospital for further tests and for a cancer specialist and surgeon to determine his treatment plan, which would likely include surgery and chemotherapy.

According to ASCO, if the cancer is detected at an early stage when it's possible to surgically remove the tumor about 42% of people with pancreatic cancer will be alive five years after diagnosis. However, for those diagnosed after the cancer has spread to a distant body part, the five year survival rate decreases to 3%.

"The radiologist didn't see any evidence of spread to his liver or other organs, so I was hopeful we had caught it early in Brian's case and that he would have a good outcome with available treatments," Kube wrote.