What Is the Pancreas and Where Is It Located?

The pancreas is a small organ located deep in the belly, between the stomach and the spine. It’s about six inches long and is surrounded by these other organs:

  • Stomach
  • Small intestine
  • Liver
  • Spleen
  • Gallbladder

The pancreas is shaped a bit like a flattened out pear. It has a wide end located on the right side of the body. The wide end is called the head. The pancreas also has a narrower middle and end, and these are called the body and tail, respectively. The body and tail pass behind the stomach and angle up toward the left side of the body.

What Does the Pancreas Do?

The pancreas is a gland, which means it produces (makes) chemical substances and secretes (releases) them for the body to use.

The pancreas secretes two different types of substances:

  • Juices that help digest food
  • Hormones (such as insulin) that help control blood sugar levels in the body

The juices and hormones are produced by two different types of pancreatic cells:

  • Exocrine cells produce the juices that help digest food. The juices contain enzymes. The juices enter the digestive system through small tubes called ducts
  • Endocrine cells produce the hormones that help control blood sugar levels. Hormones are carried through the bloodstream

What Is Cancer?

Cancer is a general term for a large group of related diseases. There are over 100 cancers. All of them start when abnormal cells grow out of control, which can damage the healthy cells around them.

For an overview of cancer (including how it starts and spreads, and how cancer cells differ from normal body cells) visit cancer.org, the website of the American Cancer Society.

This link is to a third-party website.

What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

Like other cancers, pancreatic cancer starts with abnormal cells that grow out of control.

With pancreatic cancer, the abnormal cells form a tumor or tumors in the head, body, or tail of the pancreas. Pancreatic tumors are classified by the cells that are affected, exocrine cells or endocrine cells.

What Are the Types of Pancreatic Cancer?

There are two major types of pancreatic cancers.

Exocrine tumors start in the exocrine cells that make the enzymes and juices that help with digestion. Exocrine tumors are the most common type of pancreatic cancer. In fact, more than 95% of pancreatic cancers are exocrine tumors.

Endocrine tumors start in the endocrine cells that produce hormones. Endocrine tumors make up less than 5% of all pancreatic cancer tumors. Endocrine tumors are often called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (pancreatic NETs or PNETs).

Note: Because the large majority of pancreatic cancer tumors are the exocrine type, this site focuses on subjects related to exocrine tumors. Where it occurs, information about endocrine tumors is specifically called out as such.

For more information about types of pancreatic cancer, visit cancer.org, the website of the American Cancer Society.

This link is to a third-party website.

What Are the Stages of Pancreatic Cancer?

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After pancreatic cancer has been diagnosed, doctors use staging to determine whether and how much the cancer has spread in the body. The staging process also helps doctors determine the size of the tumor(s), the patient’s prognosis, and treatment options.

Proper staging may require additional imaging tests beyond the original diagnostic testing. It may even require a biopsy.

Factors that doctors consider during the staging process include the size and location of the tumor and whether the tumor is localized to the pancreas or has spread to other parts of the body.

Pancreatic cancer specialists take test results and other factors into account when assigning the cancer a stage.

Is Surgery an Option?

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Doctors also consider resection status in order to make treatment decisions. Resection status describes whether or not a tumor can be surgically removed.

NOTE: Some cancers might appear to be resectable based on imaging tests.

During surgery it may become clear that not all the cancer can be removed. In these cases, only a sample of the cancer may be removed to confirm the diagnosis.

What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is often called a “silent” disease because people in the early stages frequently don’t have symptoms. Or, the symptoms they do have may be symptoms of many other conditions too. This is why early diagnosis is a challenge.

It’s also why most people aren’t diagnosed with the disease until it has already reached later, more advanced stages.

What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?

button-personSymptoms that may lead to diagnosis of pancreatic cancer include: Jaundice • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back • Weight loss for unknown reasons • Loss of appetite • Feeling very tired • New-onset diabetes or a sudden change in blood sugar levels in previously controlled diabetes

button-personPeople with advanced pancreatic cancer may also have these symptoms: Blood clots • Fluid in the abdomen

button-personAnd the following symptoms may be experienced at any stage: Fatigue • Weakness • Digestive difficulties

For more information about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer, visit pancan.org, the website of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

This link is to a third-party website.

What Are the Risk Factors? Who Gets Pancreatic Cancer?

Risk factors are things that affect the chances a person will get a disease.

Although the causes of pancreatic cancer are not well understood yet, research indicates several factors can affect the chances of getting it. However, many people with one or more of the following risk factors will not develop pancreatic cancer, while some people who don’t have any identified risk factors will.

Note: Because more than 95% of pancreatic cancers arise from exocrine cells, most of the following risk factors for pancreatic cancer are related to exocrine tumors.

What Are the Risk Factors? Who Gets Pancreatic Cancer?

button-personRisk Factors That Can’t Be Controlled: Advanced age • Male gender • Race/Ethnicity*

button-helixGenetic Risk Factors and Medical Conditions: Family history of pancreatic cancer • Chronic pancreatitis • Longstanding diabetes • Obesity • Non-O blood group

button-cigEnvironmental and Lifestyle Risk Factors: Cigarette smoking • Occupational exposures (such as chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents and nickel) • High-fat diet • Diets high in meat and low in vegetables and folate

For more information about risk factors, visit cancer.org, the website of the American Cancer Society, and pancan.org, the website of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

This link is to a third-party website.

*African Americans have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer compared to individuals of Asian, Hispanic, or Caucasian descent. There is also a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer among Ashkenazi Jews.

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Treated?

Your Treatment Plan Worksheet

A helpful resource for discussing pancreatic cancer and treatment planning with your doctor

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Together, you and your healthcare team will create an individualized treatment plan based on many factors, including the pancreatic cancer’s stage and your overall health.

button-stethoscopeCommon treatments include:

These treatments may be used separately or in combination. They may be used at different times. Many of these treatments also have side effects.

Depending on a patient’s situation at a particular point in time, a treatment may range from potentially curative to palliative. For example, surgery to remove a tumor might be considered curative. Surgery to insert a stent, in order to alleviate a patient’s discomfort and symptoms, might be considered palliative.

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Treated?

Your Treatment Plan Worksheet

A helpful resource for discussing pancreatic cancer and treatment planning with your doctor

Download Now

button-docBefore starting treatment for pancreatic cancer, you should consider getting a second opinion. It’s good to get another opinion before finding your healthcare team and starting treatment.

With pancreatic cancer, experience counts. You should seek treatment from doctors and facilities that have previous experience with treating pancreatic cancer.

What Is the Prognosis (or Outlook)?

Your Treatment Plan Worksheet

A helpful resource for discussing pancreatic cancer and treatment planning with your doctor

Download Now

Some people want to know the outcomes for other patients with a diagnosis like theirs.

Other people don’t find this information helpful and may want to concentrate only on their personal situation. Caregivers, too, may want to only know about their loved one’s specific case and treatment.

If you don’t want to know about overall outcomes for pancreatic cancer, please skip the rest of this module and move ahead to What Are Clinical Trials?

What Is the Prognosis (or Outlook)?

Your Treatment Plan Worksheet

A helpful resource for discussing pancreatic cancer and treatment planning with your doctor

Download Now

According to the American Cancer Society, survival rates are often used by doctors as a standard way of discussing a person’s prognosis (outlook). Survival rates are based on the stage of the pancreatic cancer.

Survival rates are often based on previous outcomes of large numbers of people who had the disease, but they can’t predict what will happen with any particular person. Many other factors can affect a person’s outlook, such as their age and overall health and how well the cancer responds to treatment.

Because a patient’s doctor will know their specific situation best, patients and caregivers should speak with the patient’s doctor to discuss how survival rates may or may not apply.

For information about the five-year survival rates by stage for pancreatic cancer, visit cancer.org, the website of the American Cancer Society.

This link is to a third-party website.

Note: Please read this page with care as it contains useful, explanatory information about survival rates. Please also note that there are two sets of survival rates, one for exocrine pancreatic cancers and one for pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors treated with surgery.

What Are Clinical Trials? Why Are They Important?

Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that investigate promising new treatments or new combinations of treatments. Most treatments in use today are the results of past clinical trials.

When you join a clinical trial, you become a partner in the search for new or better ways to prevent, screen for, or treat a disease. To join a clinical trial, you must participate in a process known as informed consent.

One misconception about cancer clinical trials is that some patients receive a placebo (inactive or a sugar pill) treatment. In most cancer clinical trials, this is not so. You will receive either a current treatment option or the new treatment being studied.

What Are Clinical Trials? Why Are They Important?

Family, friends, and your healthcare professionals, can help you make the decision to participate or not participate in a clinical study. You may want to consider the possible benefits and possible risks as you make your decision.

Possible benefits:

  • Your health will be closely followed during the study
  • You may have the chance to try a new therapy that may work for you
  • You will be taking part in research to find new therapies that may help others in the future

Possible risks:

  • The new therapy may not work as well as the standard of care
  • You may have side effects that differ from those caused by the standard of care
  • Some costs related to the study may not be covered

To learn more about clinical trials, including tips for finding one, visit the Clinical Trial section of this site.

How Can Cancer Affect Nutrition?

Cooking. Comfort. Care.
Cookbook.

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A good diet is an important part of a cancer treatment plan. According to the American Cancer Society, eating a healthy and balanced diet can help patients feel better and stay strong. However it may not always be easy to eat right.

Cancer may affect how someone tolerates food:

  • Certain foods might cause nausea or even affect how the body uses nutrients
  • Side effects from cancer treatments may also make it hard to eat or tolerate certain foods

Eating problems can be frustrating and tough to deal with, both during and after cancer treatment. The American Cancer Society recommends eating a healthy, balanced diet to help maintain general health and well-being. Talk with your doctor or nurse about any trouble you may have with eating or digestion.

For more information about nutrition challenges people with pancreatic cancer face, as well as recipes and tips, visit this site’s section on Cooking.Comfort.Care.

What Is Palliative Care?

Palliative care is a multidisciplinary specialty intended to palliate (lessen the severity of) the symptoms of a serious or life-threatening disease such as pancreatic cancer.

The goal of palliative care is to improve the patient’s quality of life by addressing a person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. It also addresses the needs of family and caregivers.

Palliative care can be used alongside primary medical treatment and is appropriate at any stage of the disease. For example, drugs used to control pain or nausea are considered palliative care. Surgery to insert a stent to relieve or prevent a patient’s discomfort could be considered palliative care too.

For more information about palliative care, see the Palliative Care section of this site.

What If Treatment Is Stopped or Ended?

Sometimes, a person may have tried many different treatments (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy) and yet the cancer has not gotten better. When this happens, it might be time for the individual to weigh with his or her doctor the possible limited benefits of trying additional, new treatments against the possible disadvantages, including the side effects from those treatments.

Everyone has his or her own way of doing this and no decision is right or wrong. One thing to consider is hospice care, a type of palliative care.

Like other types of palliative care, the goal of hospice care is to help make patients more comfortable. In addition, hospice also provides medical, emotional, and spiritual support for a patient’s caregivers and loved ones. Hospice care is focused on the last phases of a person’s disease, when treatment is no longer expected to be helpful.

For more information about hospice care, including when it’s usually started, how long it can last, and where it’s usually provided, visit the Hospice section of this site.