Understanding Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic Cancer

What is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is an oblong organ that lies behind the stomach and extends across the abdomen.

The shape of the pancreas resembles a letter “J” lying on its side with the hook pointing down.

The pancreas plays an important role in digestion with specialized cells that correspond to the pancreas’ two main functions: exocrine functions and endocrine functions. Exocrine cells are linked to a duct system and produce digestive enzymes that are secreted into the duodenum during digestion. Endocrine cells secrete hormones such as insulin and glucagon in order to help regulate metabolism and balance the amount of sugar in the blood.

During digestion, the epithelial lining of the small intestine releases the hormones secretin and cholecystokinin (CCK). These two hormones stimulate the production of digestive enzymes by the pancreatic exocrine cells. This combination of digestive juices flows through the pancreatic duct system into the duodenum to aid in the digestion process. Most pancreatic tumors form in the exocrine epithelial cells.

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

A pancreatic cancer type is based on the location of the tumor’s origin within the pancreas.

More than 95 percent of pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas of the exocrine pancreas. Tumors of the endocrine pancreas are much less common and most are benign.

What are the Types of Cancer of the Pancreas?

  • Acinar Cell Cancers: Acinar cell cancers are tumors that form on the ends of the pancreatic ducts.
  • Adenocarcinoma: An adenocarcinoma is a cancer that begins in the cells that line certain internal organs and have secretory properties. In the pancreas, this is a cancer of the exocrine cells that line the pancreatic ducts.
  • Cystic Tumors: Cystic tumors derive their name from the presence of fluid filled sacs within the pancreas. The fluid is produced by the lining of abnormal tissues or tumors. These tumors may lead to cancer in some patients; however, most cystic tumors of the pancreas are benign.
  • Sarcomas: Sarcomas are tumors that form in the connective tissue that bonds pancreatic cells together and are rare.


Possible Issues and Causes

Pancreatic Cancer is the number “4” cancer killer in the US and the only one of the four that does not have a known cure. The lack of early detection methods and research continues to slow progress towards a cure.  There is no known cure for this deadly disease and over 42,400 people – 116 + per day are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year.  In the last 5 years more than 210,000 people have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and over 92% of those individuals have passed away during the first year of their diagnosis. While only 5% of those living past the first year live to the fifth year and 3% of those will succumb to the disease sometime beyond that point.  Pancreatic Cancer is one of the few cancers for which survival has not improved substantially over the last 25 years. Those that make it past the first year have been known to live significantly longer today than those diagnosed before 2006.

There is no known specific cause of Pancreatic Cancer and it is very difficult to diagnose and detect in its early stage. While it does not necessarily attack a specific age group patients in recent years have ranged from 19 – 85 that are afflicted with pancreatic cancer.  Previous research of pancreatic cancer patients put the percentages of patients at the older end but in the last couple of years that has changed dramatically while changing the age range significantly.  People who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer even at an early stage face a significant risk of recurrence and early death.


Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer vary and sometimes do not occur until the disease is in an advanced stage.  That is why it is so difficult to diagnose and detect.

The signs and symptoms may include:

  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Yellowing of skin and whites of eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Significant loss of weight in the first 30 -60 days
  • Depression
  • Digestive issues
  • Itching


Risk Factors

Some risk factors may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer but are not necessarily a risk factor for everyone:

  • Second hand smoke
  • Smoking
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Ethnic group – highest probability listed first
    • Significant risk for African Americans – 52%
    • Caucasian – 37%
    • Hispanic – 10%
    • Asian/Pacific Island/American Indian/Alaskan Native -1%
  • Weight (it has been shown that part of the weight problem stems from the pancreas being infected).


Tests and diagnosis

According to researchers studying ways to detect pancreatic cancer early detection methods are still difficult.  However, it is still not clear who should undergo screening and which screening tests are most reliable to detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages. Currently there is NO SET STANDARD screening for pancreatic cancer. Every pancreatic cancer patient is unique in this area.

Please always contact your local cancer care center for further information regarding your specific form of pancreatic cancer.

For further information, please contact us at 800-859-NPCF(6723) or e-mail us at  info@npcf.com.

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Thank you for your support in this fight against pancreatic cancer