Pancreatic Cancer

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Pancreatic cancer facts

  • Most pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas.
  • Few patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have identifiable risk factors.
  • Pancreatic cancer is highly lethal.
  • Pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose, and the diagnosis often is made late in the course of the disease. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer in its late stage include weight loss and back pain. In some cases, painless jaundice may be a symptom of early, operable pancreatic cancer.
  • The only curative treatment is surgical removal of all cancer.
  • Chemotherapy after surgery can lower the chances of the cancer returning.
  • Chemotherapy for metastatic pancreatic cancer can extend life and improve the quality of life for people with the disease.
  • Patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are encouraged to seek out clinical trials to improve pancreatic cancer treatment.
  • Many organizations exist to help provide information and support for patients and families fighting pancreatic cancer.

What is the pancreas, and what is the function of the pancreas?

The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen that sits in front of the spine above the level of the belly button. It performs two main functions. First, it makes insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels; and second, it makes enzymes which help break down proteins. The enzymes help digestion by chopping proteins into smaller parts so that they can be more easily absorbed by the body and used for energy. Enzymes leave the pancreas via a system of tubes called "ducts" that connect the pancreas to the intestines. The pancreas sits deep in the belly and is in close proximity to many important structures such as the small intestine (the duodenum) and the bile ducts, as well as important blood vessels and nerves.

Picture of the anatomy of the pancreas.
Cancer that starts in the pancreas is called pancreatic cancer. This picture of the pancreas shows its location in the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/29/2013

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Pancreatic Cancer Causes

Aside from advanced age, smoking is the main risk factor for pancreatic cancer; a smoker is three to four times more likely than a nonsmoker to acquire the disease. People frequently exposed to certain petroleum products may also be at increased risk. Excessive alcohol, dietary fat, and protein, as well as low fiber intake, may also promote the disease. Diabetes is also linked to pancreatic cancer, with 10% to 20% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer also having diabetes.


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