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Pancreatic islet cell cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells first form in tissues of the endocrine pancreas. It is a rare form of cancer, accounting for only about 5 percent of pancreatic cancer cases. Symptoms of pancreatic islet cell cancer may include pain in the abdomen, diarrhea, fatigue, fainting, and unexplained weight gain. Treatment options for pancreatic islet cell cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy.

Pancreatic Islet Cell Cancer: An Introduction

Pancreatic islet cell cancer is a rare disease in which cancer cells are found in certain tissues of the pancreas where hormones are produced. It should not be confused with cancer of the exocrine pancreas, which accounts for approximately 95 percent of pancreatic cancer cases.

(Click Pancreatic Cancer for information on the more common form of cancer that develops in the pancreas.)

Understanding the Pancreas and Islet Cell Cancer

The pancreas is about 6 inches long and is shaped like a thin pear. The pancreas lies behind the stomach, inside a loop that is formed by part of the small intestine. The broader right end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow left end is the tail.
The pancreas has two basic jobs in the body. The first job is to produce digestive juices that help break down (digest) food. The second job is to produce hormones (such as insulin) that regulate how the body stores and uses food. The area of the pancreas that produces digestive juices is called the exocrine pancreas, which is where approximately 95 percent of pancreatic cancers begin. The hormone-producing area of the pancreas has special cells called islet cells and is called the endocrine pancreas. The endocrine pancreas is where approximately 5 percent of pancreatic cancers begin.
The islet cells make many hormones, including insulin, which help the body store and use sugars. When islet cells become cancerous, they may make too many hormones. Islet cell cancers that make too many hormones are called functioning tumors. Other islet cell cancers may not make extra hormones and are called nonfunctioning tumors. Tumors that do not spread to other parts of the body can also be found in the islet cells. These are called benign tumors and are not cancer. A doctor will need to determine whether the tumor is cancerous or benign.
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Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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