Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic (PAN-kree-AT-ik) cancer is a condition in which the cells in the pancreas (PAN-kree-us), a digestive gland located behind the stomach, divide without control or order, forming tumors that frequently spread to other parts of the body. The disease is usually fatal.

What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is a six-inch-long gland in the abdomen * that is surrounded by the stomach, intestine, and other digestive organs. It is shaped like a long, flattened pear, wide at one end and narrow at the other.

This gland produces fluids that contain digestive enzymes * (ENzimes), proteins that help break down food for use in the body. These fluids travel through a series of ducts, or tubes, into a main pancreatic duct that joins the common bile duct coming from the liver and gallbladder. Along with the bile, which helps the body digest fat, the pancreatic juices empty into the small intestine.

Besides secreting enzymes, the pancreas has islet (EYE-let) cells that manufacture and release hormones directly into the blood. These hormones help the body store or use the energy that comes from food. Insulin and glucagons are created this way, and these hormones help control the amount of sugar in the blood.

Cancer usually begins in the juice-carrying ducts, but in rare cases it may start in the islet cells. A tumor * forms and eventually grows into the surrounding organs. Cancer cells may also break away from the tumor and spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes * , liver, lungs, and bones.

Finding cancer early is the key to treating it successfully, but with pancreatic cancer, a patient typically does not notice the symptoms until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. By then, it is usually too late for treatment to be successful.

What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?

People with cancer of the pancreas eventually develop pain in the upper abdomen that sometimes spreads to the back and may become worse after eating or lying down. They also may experience nausea * * .

How Is Cancer of the Pancreas Diagnosed?

When doctors suspect pancreatic cancer, they perform x-rays and other imaging tests that produce pictures of the pancreas and the areas surrounding it. These tests can help doctors rule out other, less serious conditions that may cause the same symptoms. While these visual tests are helpful in diagnosing pancreatic cancer, the only way to know for sure is to do a biopsy (BI-op-see), the removal of a tissue sample that is then viewed under a microscope. Surgeons can obtain this tissue in different ways. They can get it with a needle that is inserted through the abdomen into the pancreas or through a thin, flexible tube passed down the throat and into the stomach region.

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Treated?

Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all cancers: between 95 and 99 percent. The best chance for survival occurs when the tumor is confined to the pancreas and the immediate surrounding area. More commonly, treating the disease aims at lessening the pain and improving the person's quality of life.

In either case, the most common forms of treatment are surgery, radiation therapy * , and chemotherapy * (KEE-mo-THER-a-pee), or a combination of them. Surgery involves removing part or all of the pancreas in a procedure called pancreatectomy (pan-kree-a-TEK-to-mee). Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to damage cancer cells and stop them from growing and dividing. Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs that are fed into a vein or given in pill form.

Who Develops Cancer of the Pancreas and Why?

Example of TNM staging (pancreatic cancer)

Example of TNM staging (pancreatic cancer)
SOURCE: American Cancer Society, “How is Pancreatic Cancer Staged?” Available online at:ώde/pancreatic-cancer-staging. Table by PreMediaGlobal. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.

Doctors are not sure what causes this type of cancer. Research shows that people are more likely to develop it if they smoke cigarettes or have diabetes * . Some studies suggest that a fatty diet that is low in fruits and vegetables contributes to pancreatic cancer, whereas others indicate that people who are exposed to certain harsh chemicals in their jobs are at higher risk. Heredity is another possible factor: About 10 percent of people who have pancreatic cancer have a family history of the disease. In 2015 research was underway to help pinpoint specific causes of pancreatic cancer, particularly in those people who have none of the risk factors.

See also Cancer: Overview


Books and Articles

Harmon, Katherine. “The Puzzle of Pancreatic Cancer: How Steve Jobs Did Not Beat the Odds—but Nobel Winner Ralph Steinman Did.” Scientific American. October 7, 2011. (accessed November 6, 2015).

Nutt, Amy Ellis. “Researchers Find Reason Pancreatic Cancer Resists Chemotherapy Drug.” The Washington Post. January 30, 2015. (accessed November 5, 2015).


American Cancer Society. “Pancreatic Cancer.” (accessed November 8, 2015).

MedlinePlus. “Pancreatic Cancer.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. (accessed August 11, 2015).

National Cancer Institute. “Pancreatic Cancer.” (accessed November 8, 2015).

National Cancer Institute. “What You Need to Know about Cancer of the Pancreas.” (accessed August 24, 2015).


American Cancer Society. 250 Williams St. NW, Atlanta, GA 30303. Toll-free: 800-227-2345. Website: (accessed August 11, 2015).

National Cancer Institute. BG 9609 MSC 9760, 9609 Medical Center Dr., Bethesda, MD 20892-9760. Toll-free: 800-422-6237. Website: (accessed August 11, 2015).

National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation. PO Box 1848, Longmont, CO 80502. Toll-free: 800-859-6723. Website: (accessed November 6, 2015).

Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. 1500 Rosecrans Ave., Suite 200, Manhattan Beach, CA, 90266. Toll-free: 877-272-6226. Website: (accessed November 6, 2015).

* abdomen (AB-do-men), commonly called the belly, is the portion of the body between the thorax (THOR-aks) and the pelvis.

* enzymes (EN-zimes) are proteins that help speed up a chemical reaction in a cell or organism.

* tumor (TOO-mor) refers to an abnormal growth of body tissue that has no known cause or physiologic purpose. A tumor may or may not be cancerous.

* diarrhea (di-ah-RE-a) refers to frequent, watery stools (bowel movements).

* radiation therapy is a treatment that uses high-energy radiation from x-rays and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink cancerous growths.

* chemotherapy (KEE-mo-THER-a-pee) is the treatment of cancer with powerful drugs that kill cancer cells.

* diabetes (dye-uh-BEE-teez) is a condition in which the body's pancreas does not produce enough insulin or the body cannot use the insulin it makes effectively, resulting in increased levels of sugar in the blood. This can lead to increased urination, dehydration, weight loss, weakness, and a number of other symptoms and complications related to chemical imbalances within the body.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)