Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas.
The pancreas is a gland about 6 inches long that is shaped like a thin pear lying on its side. The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine.
Anatomy of the pancreas. The pancreas has three areas: head, body, and tail. It is found in the abdomen near the stomach, intestines, and other organs.
The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:
- To produce juices that help digest (break down) food.
- To produce hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help control blood sugar levels. Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.
The digestive juices are produced by exocrine pancreas cells and the hormones are produced by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells.
This summary provides information on exocrine pancreatic cancer. Refer to the PDQ summary on Islet Cell Tumors (Endocrine Pancreas) Treatment for information on endocrine pancreatic cancer.
Smoking and health history can affect the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include the following:
- Long-standing diabetes.
- Chronic pancreatitis.
- Certain hereditary conditions, such as hereditary pancreatitis, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 syndrome, hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome), von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, and the familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM).
Possible signs of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain, and weight loss.
These and other symptoms may be caused by pancreatic cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
- Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back.
- Weight loss for no known reason.
- Loss of appetite.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect (find) and diagnose early.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for the following reasons:
- There aren't any 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.
- The pancreas is hidden behind other organs such as the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, spleen, and bile ducts.
Tests that examine the pancreas are used to detect (find), diagnose, and stage pancreatic cancer.