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When cancer cells first form in the tissues of the pancreas, this is known as pancreatic cancer. It is not yet known what causes it; however, risk factors for the disease include cigarette smoking and having diabetes. In most cases, there are no early symptoms of the cancer. When symptoms do occur, they may include jaundice, unexplained weight loss, and fatigue. At this time, the disease can be cured only when it is found at an early stage and only if the patient is healthy enough to have surgery.

What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which cancer cells first form in the tissues of the pancreas.

Understanding the Pancreas

The pancreas is a gland that is about 6 inches long and is shaped like a thin pear lying on its side. The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine.
The pancreas has two main jobs in the body. The first job is to produce juices that help digest (break down) food. The second job is to produce hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, which help control blood sugar levels. Both of these hormones help the body use and store energy that it gets from food. The digestive juices are produced by exocrine pancreas cells, and the hormones are produced by endocrine pancreas cells.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

Approximately 95 percent of pancreatic cancer cases begin in the ducts that carry pancreatic juices (exocrine cells). Pancreatic cancer is also called cancer of the pancreas or carcinoma of the pancreas.
A rare type of pancreatic cancer may begin in the cells that make insulin and other hormones. This type of cancer is called pancreatic islet cell cancer.
(Click Pancreatic Islet Cell Cancer for more information about this rare form of pancreatic cancer.)
For the remainder of this article, the term "pancreatic cancer" refers to cancer that begins in the ducts that carry pancreatic juices (exocrine cells).
When pancreatic cancer spreads (metastasizes) outside the pancreas, cancer cells are often found in nearby lymph nodes. If the cancer has reached these lymph nodes, it means that cancer cells may have spread to other lymph nodes or tissues in the abdomen, liver, or lungs.
When cancer spreads from its place of origin to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary tumor. For example, if pancreatic cancer spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are pancreatic cancer cells. The disease is metastatic pancreatic cancer, not liver cancer, and it will be treated as pancreatic cancer.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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