What is pancreatic cancer?

Cancer in the pancreas occurs when the cells in the pancreas multiply out of control. A mass of tissue can result. Sometimes, this mass is benign (not cancerous). In pancreatic cancer, however, the mass is malignant (cancerous).

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a gland that is found behind the stomach. The main jobs of the pancreas are to aid in breaking down food and to regulate blood sugar levels in the body. The pancreas is involved in maintaining blood sugar levels because it makes insulin and glucagon, two hormones that control blood sugar levels. The pancreas is an exocrine gland because of its job making the enzymes for digestion and an endocrine gland because it makes hormones like insulin and glucagon.

What are the types of pancreatic cancer?

There are two types of tumors that grow in the pancreas: exocrine or neuroendocrine tumors. About 93% of all pancreatic tumors are exocrine tumors, and the most common kind of pancreatic cancer is called adenocarcinoma. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is what people usually mean when they say they have cancer of the pancreas, or pancreatic cancer. The most common type begins in the ducts of the pancreas and is called ductal adenocarcinoma.

There are rarer forms of exocrine tumors, including one that is becoming more common—intraductal mucinous neoplasm (IPMN). This one starts out as benign but can grow and become cancerous over time.

The rest of the pancreatic tumors, about 7% of the total, are neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), called pancreatic NETs (PNETs). This type of tumor is also called an islet cell tumor or islet cell carcinoma. If you have an islet cell tumor, you might also hear them called a name based on the type of hormone the cell makes—for instance, insulinoma would be a tumor in a cell that makes insulin.

Symptoms of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer may be different than the traditional pancreatic cancer symptoms, such as jaundice or weight loss. This is because some PNETs continue to overproduce hormones.

Who gets pancreatic cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer represents approximately 3% of all cancers and 7% of all cancer deaths in the United States. It occurs slightly more often in men than in women. The expectation for 2019 was that some 56,770 U.S. adults would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

There is no clear answer. We do not know what causes pancreatic cancer. Research has identified some risk factors.

What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

The average lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 64. A risk factor is something that raises the chance that you will get a disease. There are risk factors that are a result of behavior and that can be changed. For pancreatic cancer, these types of risk factors include:

  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars and using other forms of tobacco.
  • Having diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity. The new development of diabetes at an older age (for example, in someone in their 70s) and in someone with a normal weight or body mass index could be a sign of pancreatic cancer.
  • Obesity is also a risk factor. Carrying weight around the waist is a risk factor even if you are not obese.
  • Being exposed to chemicals used by dry cleaners and metal workers.
  • Having chronic pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas sometimes associated with smoking and drinking a lot of alcohol.

There are also risk factors that you can’t change. These include:

  • Heredity, including some conditions that cause chronic pancreatitis and including a family history of cancer of the pancreas. It is also important to know any family history of breast cancer as the hereditary conditions associated with breast cancer, called BRCA syndromes, are associated with pancreatic cancer.
  • Being older than 40.
  • Being male.
  • Being of African-American or Ashkenazi Jewish descent.

What are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer does not always show symptoms, especially in the earlier stages. However, pancreatic cancer may cause the following:

  • Upper abdominal pain that may spread to the back.
  • Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice), maybe with itchiness.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Blood clots.

Your healthcare provider might suspect pancreatic cancer if you have some symptoms and you’ve recently developed diabetes or pancreatitis.

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