Pancreatic Cancer - Topic Overview

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer happens when cells that aren't normal grow and start to form tumors in the pancreas camera.gif, a small organ located deep in the belly, behind your stomach.

The pancreas makes juices that help your body digest food. It also makes insulin and other hormones that help control your blood sugar.

There are two main types of pancreatic tumors: exocrine and endocrine. The type of tumor depends on which type of cells are involved. Exocrine (say "EX-oh-krin") cells make digestive juices. Endocrine (say "EN-doh-krin") cells make insulin. Most people with pancreatic cancer have exocrine tumors, which grow faster than endocrine tumors.

Treatments are more successful when cancer is found early. But in most cases, pancreatic cancer has already spread by the time it is found. Still, treatment may help you feel better, and it helps some people live longer.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

Experts don't know what causes pancreatic cancer. But they do know that changes in the body's DNA play a role in many cancers.

What are the symptoms?

Pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms until it has spread. Then, symptoms may include pain in the upper belly or the back, weight loss, extreme tiredness, and jaundice.

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

There are not yet any tests that work well for finding pancreatic cancer in its early stages.

If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, you may have one or more imaging tests-tests that produce pictures of the pancreas and surrounding areas-such as a CT scan or MRI.

You may also have a biopsy. This means taking a tissue sample from the pancreas and checking it under a microscope.

What increases the risk of pancreatic cancer?

Your risk of getting pancreatic cancer is higher if you:

How is it treated?

Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are the main treatments for pancreatic cancer. Although treatment doesn't usually cure the cancer, it may help you feel better and live longer.


This cancer is rarely found before it has grown. But when it is found early, treatment can help the person live longer. Statistics show that for every 100 people whose cancer is found early, about 23 will live at least 5 more years.1

Finding out that you have cancer can change your life. You may feel like your world has turned upside down and you've lost control. Talking with family, friends, and a counselor can really help. Ask your doctor about support groups. Or call the American Cancer Society (1-800-227-2345) or visit its website at

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about pancreatic cancer:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Supportive care:

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise
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