Diabetes and Your Pancreas

Medically Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on September 09, 2023
4 min read

Your pancreas is an organ that’s found deep in your belly (abdomen) between your stomach and spine.

It helps you digest your food and controls your blood sugar by releasing a hormone called insulin into your bloodstream. If your pancreas isn't working the way it should, or your body can't use the insulin it makes, your blood sugar levels get too high, and you get diabetes.

There is a connection between diabetes and other conditions of the pancreas, like pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer. But if you have diabetes, you won't automatically have these other problems. And having these other issues doesn't mean for sure that you'll get diabetes.

There are three common types of diabetes:

  • Type 1: Your body's immune system attacks the cells in your pancreas that make insulin, so it can't make enough to keep your blood sugar levels where they should be.
  • Type 2: This is the most common form. This is when your pancreas doesn't make any or enough insulin, or your body can't use the insulin it does make very well. The glucose can't get into your cells, so it stays in the blood.
  • Gestational diabetes: This happens only during pregnancy. The changes in your hormones at that time make your body unable to use insulin as usual, so your pancreas can't make enough. This type usually goes away after your baby is born. But if you've had it, you're more likely to have type 2 diabetes later on.

Diabetes can sometimes be related to other problems with your pancreas.

Pancreatitis is when your pancreas becomes inflamed. It happens when proteins (enzymes) in your digestive system start to act while still in your pancreas and irritate its cells. While diabetes doesn’t cause pancreatitis, people with type 2 are at higher risk for it. There are several things that can cause pancreatitis, including infections and smoking. But the most common are heavy alcohol use and gallstones, which are small masses in the gallbladder. Sometimes, the cause is unknown.

There are two types of pancreatitis:

  • Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly and lasts for a few days.
  • Chronic pancreatitis is an illness in which symptoms come and go over many years. This type can damage cells in the pancreas. This can cause scar tissue, loss of function, and digestion problems. If it happens over and over again, it can cause diabetes.

Symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • Pain in the upper belly
  • Pain in the belly that spreads to your back
  • Fever
  • Fast pulse
  • Upset stomach (nausea)
  • Throwing up (vomiting)
  • Belly tenderness

Doctors can treat pancreatitis. A serious case of it may force you to stay in the hospital. If you have type 2 diabetes, your body is more likely to be unable to process insulin, so you'll need even more insulin treatment. You can lower your risk by losing weight or maintaining a healthy lifestyle, not smoking, and staying away from alcohol.

Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes can have a link to it as either something that raises your risk of having it or as a symptom.

If you have type 2 diabetes, you're up to twice as likely to have pancreatic cancer as someone who doesn't have the condition. It's more likely to happen if you’ve had diabetes for a while -- 5 years or longer -- than if you don’t have it at all. If you have pancreatic cancer, but have had type 2 for less than 5 years, research hasn't figured out if the disease plays a role in the cancer or if the abnormal (precancerous) cells cause the diabetes.

It's rare, but pancreatic cancer can also cause diabetes, because it destroys the cells in the organ that make insulin. If you get type 2 diabetes when you're over age 50, it may be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. If you had it before this age, it could be a red flag if your blood sugar levels suddenly change after you've had them under control. Symptoms of this type of cancer don't usually happen until its later stages.

If doctors have taken out all or part of your pancreas to treat your pancreatic cancer (Whipple procedure), you can't make insulin anymore, and you'll end up with diabetes.

Several things make it more likely that you'll get pancreatic cancer. You can change some of them, but others are out of your control. They include:

  • Tobacco use. Smokers are twice as likely to get pancreatic cancer than those who've never smoked. Cigar smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco products also raise your odds.
  • Extra weight. People with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more are around 20% more likely to get pancreatic cancer. Extra belly fat may also be a risk factor, even if you’re not overweight.
  • Age. Your risk of getting pancreatic cancer goes up the older you get. Most patients are over 45 years old. The average age is 70.
  • Family history. Pancreatic cancer runs in some families due to gene changes (mutations) that parents pass to their children. But most people with pancreatic cancer don't have a family history of the illness.

Managing diabetes can be more difficult if you have pancreatic cancer. Doctors may change your medications or ask you to check your blood sugar level more often. If cancer treatments have caused you to lose weight, the normal advice about diet and diabetes may not work for you. Talk to a diabetes or nutrition expert for more information about managing your condition.