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Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI] - General Information About Pancreatic Cancer

This summary provides information about the treatment of exocrine pancreatic cancer. Other PDQ summaries containing information related to cancer in the pancreas include the following:

  • Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors (Islet Cell Tumors) Treatment.
  • Unusual Cancers of Childhood Treatment (pancreatic cancer during childhood).

Incidence and Mortality

Estimated new cases and deaths from pancreatic cancer in the United States in 2013:[1]

  • New cases: 45,220.
  • Deaths: 38,460.

The incidence of carcinoma of the pancreas has markedly increased over the past several decades and ranks as the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Despite the high mortality rate associated with pancreatic cancer, its etiology is poorly understood.[2]

Risk Factors

Risk factors for development of pancreatic cancer include the following:[3,4]

  • A family history of pancreatic cancer.
  • Cigarette smoking.
  • Obesity.
  • Chronic pancreatitis.


Anatomy of the pancreas.

Cancers of the pancreas are commonly identified by the site of involvement within the pancreas. Surgical approaches differ for masses in the head, body, tail, or uncinate process of the pancreas.

Clinical Features

Pancreatic cancer symptoms depend on the site of the tumor within the pancreas and the degree of tumor involvement.

In the early stages of pancreatic cancer there are not many noticeable symptoms. As the cancer grows, symptoms may include the following:

  • Jaundice.
  • Light-colored stools or dark urine.
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Fatigue.

Diagnostic and Staging Evaluation

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for the following reasons:

  • There are no noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.
  • The signs of pancreatic cancer, when present, are like the signs of many other illnesses, such as pancreatitis or an ulcer.
  • The pancreas is obscured by other organs in the abdomen and is difficult to visualize clearly on imaging tests.

To appropriately treat pancreatic cancer, it is crucial to evaluate whether the cancer can be resected.


The use of imaging technology may aid in the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and in the identification of patients with disease that is not amenable to resection. Imaging tests that may be used include the following:[5]

  • Helical computed tomographic scan.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging scan.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound.
  • Minimally invasive techniques, such as laparoscopy and laparoscopic ultrasound may be used to decrease the use of laparotomy.[6,7]
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