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

Quick GuidePancreatic Cancer Pictures Slideshow

Pancreatic Cancer Pictures Slideshow

What is cancer?

Every second of every day within our body, a massive process of destruction and repair occurs. The human body is comprised of trillions of cells and every day billions of cells wear out or are destroyed. Each time the body makes a new cell to replace one that is wearing out, the body tries to make a perfect copy of the cell that dies off, because that dying cell had a job to do and the newly made cell must be capable of performing that same function. Despite remarkably elegant systems in place to edit out errors in this process, the body makes tens of thousands of mistakes daily in normal cell division either due to random errors or from environmental pressure within the body. Most of these mistakes are corrected, or the mistake leads to the death of the newly made cell and another new cell then is made. Sometimes a mistake is made that, rather than inhibiting the cell's ability to grow and survive, allows the newly made cell to grow in an unregulated manner. When this occurs, that cell can begin to divide independent of the checks and balances that control normal cell growth resulting in a cancer cell. When this happens, the cancer cell multiplies, and a cancerous or malignant tumor can develop.

Tumors fall into two categories: "benign" tumors and "malignant," or cancerous, tumors. So what is the difference? The answer is that a benign tumor grows only in the tissue from which it arises. Benign tumors can sometimes grow quite large or grow rapidly and cause severe symptoms. For example, a fibroid in a woman's uterus can cause bleeding or pain, but it will never travel outside the uterus and grow as a new tumor elsewhere. Fibroids, like all benign tumors, lack the capacity to shed cells into the blood and lymph systems and cannot travel to other places in the body and grow. A cancer, on the other hand, can shed cells from the primary tumor that can float like dandelion seeds in the wind through the bloodstream or lymphatics, landing in tissues distant from the primary tumor, growing new tumors in various other sites. This process, called metastasis, is the defining characteristic of a cancerous tumor. Pancreatic cancer, unfortunately, is a particularly good model for this process. Pancreatic cancers can metastasize early to other organs in this manner. They also can grow and invade adjacent structures directly, often rendering the surgical removal of the tumor impossible.

Cancers are named by the tissues from which the primary tumor arises. Hence, a lung cancer that travels to the liver is not a "liver cancer" but is described as metastatic lung cancer and a patient with a breast cancer that spreads to the brain is not described as having a "brain tumor" but rather as having metastatic breast cancer.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/29/2016

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