Pancreatic Cancer
(Cancer of the Pancreas)

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a spongy, tube-shaped organ about 6 inches long. It is located in the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach. The head of the pancreas is on the right side of the abdomen. It is connected to the duodenum, the upper end of the small intestine. The narrow end of the pancreas, called the tail, extends to the left side of the body.

The pancreas makes pancreatic juices and hormones, including insulin. Pancreatic juices, also called enzymes, help digest food in the small intestine. Insulin controls the amount of sugar in the blood. Both enzymes and hormones are needed to keep the body working right.

As pancreatic juices are made, they flow into the main pancreatic duct. This duct joins the common bile duct, which connects the pancreas to the liver and the gallbladder. The common bile duct, which carries bile (a fluid that helps digest fat), connects to the small intestine near the stomach.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a group of diseases. More than 100 different types of cancer are known, and several types of cancer can develop in the pancreas. They all have one thing in common: abnormal cells grow and destroy body tissue.

Healthy cells that make up the body's tissues grow, divide, and replace themselves in an orderly way. This process keeps the body in good repair. Sometimes, however, some cells lose the ability to control their growth. They grow too rapidly and without any order. Too much tissue is made, and tumors are formed. Tumors can be benign or malignant.

Benign tumors are not cancer. They do not spread to other parts of the body and are seldom a threat to life. Often, benign tumors can be removed by surgery, and they are not likely to return.

Malignant tumors are cancer. They can invade and destroy nearby healthy tissues and organs. Cancer cells also can break away from the tumor and spread to other parts of the body. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

Cancer that starts in the pancreas is called pancreatic cancer. When pancreatic cancer spreads, it usually travels through the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system includes a network of thin tubes that branch, like blood vessels, into tissues all over the body. Cancer cells are carried through these vessels by lymph, a colorless, watery fluid that carries cells that fight infection. Along the network of lymphatic vessels are groups of small, bean-shaped organs called lymph nodes. Surgeons often remove lymph nodes near the pancreas to learn whether they contain cancer cells.

Cancer cells can also be carried through the bloodstream to the liver, lungs, bone, or other organs. Pancreatic cancer that spreads to other organs is called metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Pancreas (Pancreatic Cancer)
Picture of pancreas in an article on pancreatic cancer
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.


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