Search Close Search
Search Close Search
Page Menu

Basics of Pancreatic Cancer

The Pancreas

The pancreas is an organ within the digestive system. It has an elongated oval shape, oriented horizontally deep within the upper abdominal cavity. The larger, rounded end is called the head, and lies approximately in the midline of the body, adjacent to the beginning of the small intestine; the thin end, called the tail, extends upward toward the left side, behind the stomach. The portion in between the head and the tail is called the body.

Pancreas Pictures 

The pancreas is made up of endocrine and exocrine tissues, which give rise to its functions. The endocrine tissue is responsible for producing hormones including insulin, which get released into the bloodstream. The exocrine tissue produces enzymes which aid in digestion of food. The enzymes are delivered into the small intestine by way of the pancreatic duct. The bile duct, which drains bile from the liver, also travels through the pancreas on its way into the small intestine.

Pancreatic Cancer

The term cancer describes a disease in which the cells are growing abnormally or out of control, and can spread to other parts of the body. The resulting group of abnormal cells is often referred to as a tumor. A tumor is considered malignant if it has the potential to invade other parts of the body (metastasize). Alternatively, a tumor is considered benign if it is believed not to have metastatic potential.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women in the United States. This is in part due to the fact that tumors of the pancreas are difficult to feel, and often do not produce symptoms until the disease has spread to other parts of the body.

Types of tumors

There are different types of pancreatic cancer. The most common ones include ductal adenocarcinomas, cystic tumors (including intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms), lymphomas, and islet cell tumors (for example, gastrinomas). These tumors are different from one another in several ways, including their symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes. This website will focus on the most common type of pancreatic tumor, ductal adenocarcinoma.


The following factors may increase a person’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer. They include smoking, obesity, increasing age, poor diet, family history, and exposure to certain chemicals. While it is important to note that not everyone who has these risk factors will get pancreatic cancer, it’s equally important to note what strategies may decrease your risk. These include not smoking, maintaining a diet high in fruits and vegetables, and low in cholesterol, fried foods, and processed meats, and maintaining a healthy body weight.

There are also certain medical conditions which may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. These include chronic pancreatitis, long-standing diabetes mellitus, and a history of a certain stomach surgery (partial gastrectomy).

Hereditary factors

A family history of pancreatic cancer is associated with an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. However, the percentage of patients with pancreatic cancer resulting from hereditary factors is believed to be very low. There are no guidelines at this time which recommend screening tests for the relatives of patients with pancreatic cancer.  More information on the genetics of pancreatic cancer is available from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Signs and Symptoms

Often pancreatic cancer has no early symptoms. Also, symptoms are variable when they do occur. The most common ones include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes), back pain, pancreatitis, abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting, or unexplained weight loss. While many other things can cause each of these symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor if you’re experiencing any of them.