Pancreatic Cancer

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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.
  • 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 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 (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 5/29/2015

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Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Signs

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.

Picture of Pancreatic Cancer