Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the tissues of the pancreas. It can develop from two kinds of cells in the pancreas: exocrine cells and neuroendocrine cells, such as islet cells. The exocrine type is more common and is usually found at an advanced stage. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (islet cell tumors) are less common but have a better prognosis. Explore the links on this page to learn more about pancreatic cancer treatment, statistics, research, and clinical trials. There is no evidence-based information about prevention of pancreatic cancer.

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 between the stomach and the spine.

The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:

  • To make juices that help digest (break down) food.
  • To make 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 made by exocrine pancreas cells and the hormones are made by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells.

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. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include the following:

  • Smoking.
  • Being very overweight.
  • Having a personal history of diabetes or chronic pancreatitis.
  • Having a family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis.
  • Having certain hereditary conditions, such as:
    • Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) syndrome.
    • Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome).
    • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome.
    • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.
    • Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome.
    • Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome.

Pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed with tests and procedures that make pictures of the pancreas and the area around it. The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within and around the pancreas is called staging. Tests and procedures to detect, diagnose, and stage pancreatic cancer are usually done at the same time. In order to plan treatment, it is important to know the stage of the disease and whether or not the pancreatic cancer can be removed by surgery.

Pancreatic cancer can be controlled only if it is found before it has spread, when it can be completely removed by surgery. If the cancer has spread, palliative treatment can improve the patient’s quality of life by controlling the symptoms and complications of this disease.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the pancreas or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage of the disease in order to plan treatment. The results of some of the tests used to diagnose pancreatic cancer are often also used to stage the disease.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with pancreatic cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

What is Cancer?

  • Cancer can start almost anywhere in the human body, which is made up of trillions of cells. Normally, human cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or become damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.

  • Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the risk of getting cancer. This can include maintaining a healthy lifestyle, avoiding exposure to known cancer-causing substances, and taking medicines or vaccines that can prevent cancer from developing.

  • Cancer can cause many different symptoms. Most often these symptoms are not caused by cancer, but by benign tumors or other problems. If you have symptoms that last for a couple of weeks, your doctor will do a physical exam and order tests or other procedures to find out what is causing your symptoms.