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Understanding Pancreatic Cancer -- the Basics

What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is an organ located behind your stomach next to the top of the small intestine. It is about six inches long but is less than 2 inches wide and functions as two separate organs. It has two big manufacturing jobs in the body:

  • It makes digestive juices that help the intestines break down food.
  • It produces hormones -- including insulin -- that regulate the body's use of sugars and starches.


The pancreas is divided into three sections: the head, the body, and the tail.

The organ has special cells called endocrine cells that make hormones and are clustered together in groups called islets that are found mostly in the tail and body sections of the gland. The pancreas also has exocrine cells, another type of specialized cell, which outnumber endocrine cells 99 to one. They are spread throughout the gland and perform the digestive functions.

In pancreatic cancer, the organ's cells grow abnormally. At least 90% of pancreatic cancers are exocrine cell cancers, called adenocarcinoma. These cancers usually originate in the head of the pancreas. Endocrine cell cancers -- or pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors -- usually occur in the tail of the pancreas and are slower growing tumors with a different prognosis and treatment than pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

Pancreatic cancer usually strikes after age 60, with two-thirds of cases occurring in people over the age of 65. It is slightly more common in men than in women. Most cases are incurable. The incidence of pancreatic cancer has risen with an increase in the average life span, resulting in more than 43,920 new cases in 2012 with 37,390 deaths in the U.S., making it one of the leading cancer killers.

What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

Aside from advanced age, smoking is the main risk factor for pancreatic cancer; a smoker is twice as likely as a nonsmoker to acquire the disease. People frequently exposed to certain chemical carcinogens may also be at increased risk. Excessive dietary fat and protein as well as low fiber intake may promote the disease. High body mass index (a measure of obesity), increased height, and a low level of physical activity increases the risk as well. Diabetes is also linked to pancreatic cancer: 10% of patients with newly diagnosed diabetes will have an underlying pancreas cancer.

Others with an increased risk include:

  • African-American males
  • Hawaiian females
  • Ashkenazi Jews
  • Those with a history of chronic pancreatitis
  • Those with a family history of pancreatic cancer

Other hereditary diseases associated with pancreatic cancer include familial breast cancer, familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome, Peutz-Jaeghers syndrome, hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer syndrome, hereditary pancreatitis, and ataxia telangectasia.


WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Sujana Movva, MD on April 02, 2013

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