Pancreatic Cancer: Patient Education

Cancer Facts

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), more than 43,000 people are diagnosed annually with pancreatic cancer. Most are 65 years or older. It's the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women.

According to the NCI, "Generally, early-stage pancreatic cancer doesn't cause specific symptoms. Consequently, it's not often detected or diagnosed until it has spread (metastasized) to other parts of your body. As a result, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is around six percent. If your cancer is detected early (and you have it surgically removed), the five-year survival rate is around 22 percent" and "can be as high as 50 percent," says Matthew Bower, MD, Surgical Oncology.


Pancreatic cancer is a group of malignant cells that start in your pancreas and forms a tumor. The growing tumor can affect the function of your pancreas as well as spread (metastasize) to other parts of your body.

There are two kinds of pancreatic cancer:

  • Exocrine pancreatic cancer
    • Starts in the ducts that carry pancreatic "juices"
    • The most common type
  • Endocrine pancreatic cancer
    • Starts in the cells that make hormones, particularly insulin
    • Less common
    • Also called islet cell tumors of the pancreas

Your pancreas is a fish-shaped organ located within your abdomen, nestled between your stomach and backbone. It's approximately six inches long and is surrounded by your liver and intestines.

he pancreas is comprised of three parts:

  • The head — the widest part, closest to the small intestine
  • The body — in the middle
  • The tail — the thinnest part

Your pancreas is part of your digestive system. It makes juices that contain enzymes that break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates in the food you eat. The juices flow through a system of ducts that lead to a single main duct, called the pancreatic duct. Your pancreatic juices continue through the pancreatic duct to the duodenum, the initial part of your small intestine. The majority (95 percent) of your pancreatic cells are exocrine glands and ducts.

The remainder of your pancreatic cells are endocrine cells. They are arranged in little islets (islets of Langerhans). These islets make insulin and other hormones, which flow throughout your body through your bloodstream. These hormones help your body store energy from the food you eat; insulin reduces the amount of sugar in your blood. Faulty insulin production results in diabetes.

Types of Exocrine Tumors

Most tumors in your pancreas arise in the exocrine glands; the majority of exocrine tumors are cancerous (malignant).

There are several different kinds of exocrine tumors:

  • Adenocarcinoma
    • Approximately 95 percent of exocrine tumors
    • Usually start in the ducts of the pancreas
    • In some cases, begin in the cells that make pancreatic enzymes (called acinar cell carcinoma)
  • Adenosquamous carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Giant cell carcinoma

The stage, not the type, generally determines treatment of exocrine pancreatic cancer.

Related Resources

Additional information about pancreatic cancer:

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