Pancreatic Cancer

  • Medical Author:
    Francis W. Nugent, MD

    Dr. F.W. Nugent is a medical oncologist specializing in gastrointestinal cancers with a special interest in pancreatic cancer. Dr. Nugent graduated from Middlebury College with a bachelors degree in religion before graduating from Albany Medical College. He presently serves as vice-chairman of medical oncology at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts.

  • Medical Author: Keith E. Stuart, MD
    Keith E. Stuart, MD

    Dr. Keith E. Stuart is a medical oncologist specializing in the study and treatment of cancers involving the gastrointestinal tract, with a special interest in tumors involving the liver. He was educated at Harvard University (graduating magna cum laude) and Albert Einstein College of Medicine and did his medical training at the New England Deaconess Hospital.

  • Medical Author: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Pancreatic Cancer Overview

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Pancreatic cancer typically does not cause symptoms until it has grown, so it is most frequently diagnosed in advanced stages rather than early in the course of the disease. In some cases, jaundice (a yellowish discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes) without pain can be an early sign of pancreatic cancer. Other symptoms that can occur with more advanced disease are:

  • nausea,
  • vomiting,
  • weight loss,
  • itching skin, and
  • decreased appetite.

Pale stools, back pain, abdominal pain, dark urine, abdominal bloating, diarrhea, and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck can be present as well.

Picture of Pancreatic Cancer

Quick GuidePancreatic Cancer Pictures Slideshow

Pancreatic Cancer Pictures Slideshow

Pancreatic cancer facts

  • The pancreas, located in the abdomen, has endocrine and exocrine functions; cancer cells can develop from both types of functional cells.
  • Most pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas.
  • Few patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have identifiable risk factors.
  • Pancreatic cancer is highly lethal because it grows and spreads rapidly and often is diagnosed in its late stages.
  • Genetic analysis has recently identified four pancreatic cancer subtypes –- squamous, pancreatic progenitor, aberrantly differentiated endocrine exocrine (ADEX), and immunogenic.
  • Pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose, and the diagnosis is often made late in the course of the disease. Symptoms and signs 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 and a pancreatic transplant; however, most patients are not eligible for a pancreas transplant.
  • 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.
  • Patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are encouraged to seek out clinical trials that will ultimately improve pancreatic cancer treatment.
  • Many organizations exist to help provide information and support for patients and families fighting pancreatic cancer.

What does a pancreas do?

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 (an endocrine function); and
  • second, it makes digestive enzymes which help break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (an exocrine function).

The enzymes help digestion by chopping proteins, fats, and carbohydrates 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 where the enzymes mix with ingested food.

The pancreas sits deep in the abdomen 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 2/29/2016

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