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

In 2015, an estimated 48,960 adults (24,840 men and 24,120 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It is estimated that 40,560 deaths (20,710 men and 19,850 women) from this disease will occur this year. Pancreatic cancer is the eighth most common cancer in women and the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women.  Most pancreatic cancers are exocrine adenocarcinoma, and these statistics are for that type of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is often difficult to diagnose. This is because there are no specific, cost-effective screening tests that can easily and reliably find early-stage pancreatic cancer in people who have no symptoms. This means it is often not found until later stages when the cancer can no longer be removed with surgery and has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body.

The overall one-year survival rate is the percentage of people who survive at least one year after the cancer is found. The one-year survival rate of people with pancreatic cancer is 28%, and the five-year survival rate is 7%.

If the cancer is detected at an early stage when surgical removal of the tumor is possible, the five-year survival rate is about 26%. If the cancer has spread to the surrounding organs or tissue (regional spread), the five-year survival rate is 10%. If the cancer has spread to parts of the body far away from the pancreas (distant spread), the five-year survival rate is 2%.

Cancer survival statistics should be interpreted with caution. These estimates are based on data from thousands of people with this type of cancer in the United States each year, so the actual risk for a particular individual may be different. It is not possible to tell a person how long he or she will live with pancreatic cancer. Because the survival statistics are measured in multi-year intervals, they may not represent advances made in the treatment or diagnosis of this cancer.

Statistics adapted from the American Cancer Society’s publication, Cancer Facts & Figures 2015.

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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