National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation Presents

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

A beginner's guide to bring understanding about pancreatic cancer to caregivers, people at high risk and people who are newly diagnosed.

Although considered rare, pancreatic cancer may touch your life more than you realize. Get the latest information on risk factors, screening, diagnosis, treatment, complementary therapies, survivorship, and more.

Pancreatic Cancer Statistics

Estimated New Cases 2021


Estimated Deaths 2021


In the US PC Accounts For

3% of all cancers

Pancreatic Cancer Deaths

7% of all cancer deaths

What is the pancreas?

Let's start with the pancreas organ.

The pancreas is an 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 has 2 main jobs in the body and plays an important role in digestion.

  1. The first job related to digestion is done by exocrine cells. Exocrine cells are linked to a duct system inside the pancreas and produce enzymes that help us to break down our food.
    These enzymes are released into a portion of the small intestine called the duodenum during digestion.
  2. The second job is related to hormone regulation. Endocrine cells secrete hormones such as insulin and glucagon in order to help regulate energy levels (metabolism) and balance the amount of sugar in the blood.

During digestion, the epithelial cells lining the small intestine release 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 these exocrine epithelial cells and are called exocrine pancreatic cancer and are commonly found at an advanced stage.

What is Cancer?

A cancer type is based on the location of the tumor’s origin within the pancreas organ. In this case, the origin is the pancreas organ.

Cancer is the name for a disease in which abnormal cells divide without control and can invade nearby tissues. Cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems.

If you want to learn more about cancer consider reading the What Is Cancer article published by the NIH National Cancer Institute.

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is uncontrolled cell growth that starts in the organ of the pancreas.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

  • Acinar Cell Cancers are cancerous tumors that form on the ends of the pancreatic ducts.
  • Adenocarcinoma is cancer that begins in the cells that line internal organs and have the function to secrete fluids. In the pancreas, this is a cancer of the exocrine cells that line the pancreatic ducts. More than 95% of pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas of the exocrine pancreas.
  • 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 are tumors that form in the connective tissue that bonds pancreatic cells together and are rare.

What you should know about Pancreatic Cancer

In 2022, an estimated 62,210 adults (32,970 men and 29,240 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It is estimated that 49,830 deaths (25,970 men and 23,860 women) from this disease will occur this year.

Currently, no routine tests are used to can catch pancreatic cancer early before symptoms develop. One known risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer is a new diagnosis of diabetes, sometimes called new-onset diabetes.

About 1 in 100 people with new onset diabetes are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer within 3 years after learning they have diabetes. And 1 in 4 people who get pancreatic cancer had already been diagnosed with diabetes.

Most pancreatic cancers are exocrine adenocarcinoma.

Pancreatic cancer is the eighth most common cancer in women and the third leading cause of cancer death in men and women.

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. This means it is often not found until later stages when cancer can no longer be removed with surgery and has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body.

The 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 8%.

If detected at an early stage when surgical removal of the tumor is possible, the five-year survival rate is about 41.6%. If cancer has spread to the surrounding organs or tissue (regional spread), the five-year survival rate is 14.4%. If cancer has spread to parts of the body far away from the pancreas becoming metastatic (distant spread), the five-year survival rate is 3%.

It is not possible to tell a person how long they will live with pancreatic cancer. Because the survival statistics are measured in multi-year intervals, the numbers may not represent advances made in the treatment or diagnosis of this cancer.

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. Always consult with your Physician.

Statistics adapted from the American Cancer Society’s publication, Cancer Facts & Figures 2015. Estimates of new cases and deaths for 2021 are projections made by the American Cancer Society (ACS), based on earlier reported data.

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 years old. People who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer even at an early stage face a significant risk of recurrence and early death.

The content within the About Pancreatic Cancer section was researched via the American Cancer Society and The National Cancer Institute resources.

The information and services provided by the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation are for informational purposes only. The information and services are not intended to be substitutes for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation does not recommend nor endorse any specific physicians, products, or treatments even though they may be mentioned on this site.

Updated 1/25/2022

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