Cancer InDepth: Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells within the pancreas begin to grow abnormally in an uncontrolled and invasive way.

The pancreas is an organ located behind and to the right of the stomach, near the liver, gall bladder, and intestine. The area of the pancreas on the right side of the body, closest to the first section of the small intestine, is called the “head” of the pancreas; the middle section, behind the stomach, is called the “body” of the pancreas; and the section on the left side of the body, closest to the spleen, is called the “tail” of the pancreas.

The Pancreas
The Pancreas
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The pancreas is made up of two very different kinds of cells: endocrine cells and exocrine cells. The endocrine cells produce a number of different chemicals called hormones that enter the bloodstream and travel to other areas of the body to exert their effects. For example, the endocrine cells of the pancreas produce insulin, which breaks down and then uses or stores sugars from food.

The exocrine cells of the pancreas produce digestive juices that travel through a system of tubes called ducts into the first section of the intestine, the duodenum. These digestive juices contain enzymes that help process fat, protein, and carbohydrates in food, breaking them down into smaller units for better use by the body.

Cancer of the Pancreas

The pancreas plays a crucial role in the body’s ability to process food, making it able to generate and use energy. Pancreatic cancer greatly interferes with these functions, by damaging and destroying normal cells within the pancreas.

A pancreatic tumor grows when cells of the pancreas become cancerous. These cancer cells begin to divide and multiply more quickly than normal cells. Cancer cells also lack the ability to organize themselves in a normal way and have the capability to invade other normal tissue.

Cancer of the exocrine cells of the pancreas occurs much more frequently than cancer of the endocrine (or islet) cells of the pancreas. In fact, about 95% of all pancreatic cancers are within the exocrine system. This report covers aspects of this more common form of pancreatic cancer, called adenocarcinoma.

Who Is Affected?

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in men, and the fifth most common type of cancer in women. Men are twice as likely as women to develop pancreatic cancer. It tends to strike people over the age of 50 (85%). Unfortunately, there are no methods of detecting pancreatic cancer at an early stage. Furthermore, the condition usually progresses very rapidly; the average lifespan after diagnosis is 4-8 months. The five-year survival rate is less than 5%. Over 33,000 Americans are diagnosed yearly with pancreatic cancer; about 25,000 Americans die of the disease each year.

Causes and Complications

No one knows exactly what causes pancreatic cancer. It’s been proven that smokers, diabetics, or those with stomach resection have a 2-3 times greater risk of developing the disease. Some families also seem to have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

Because pancreatic cancer interferes with the body’s ability to utilize nutrients, unintended weight loss is a common symptom of the disease. Unfortunately, severe pain is also associated with pancreatic cancer. As the pancreatic tumor grows and obstructs some of the liver and gall bladder ducts, jaundice (a yellow discoloration of the skin and the whites of the eyes) develops.

Revision Information

  • Detailed guide: pancreatic cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/ . Accessed April 8, 2009.

  • DiMagno E. Pancreatic carcinoma. In: Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: WB Saunders Company; 2000: 750-752.

  • Freelove R, Walling AD. Pancreatic cancer: diagnosis and management. Am Fam Physician. 2006;73:485-492.

  • What you need to know about cancer of the pancreas. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancerinfo/wyntk/pancreas#2 . Accessed April 8, 2009.