The pancreas lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine. There are
two kinds of cells in the pancreas. Exocrine pancreas cells make enzymes
that are released into the small intestine to help the body digest food.
Neuroendocrine pancreas cells (such as islet cells) make several hormones,
including insulin and glucagon, that help control sugar levels in the blood.
Most pancreatic cancers form in exocrine cells. These tumors do not secrete
hormones and do not cause signs or symptoms. This makes it hard to diagnose
this type of pancreatic cancer early. For most patients with exocrine
pancreatic cancer, current treatments do not cure the cancer.
Some types of malignant pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, such as islet
cell tumors, have a better prognosis than pancreatic exocrine cancers.
Key points to consider
- Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in
the tissues of the pancreas.
- Smoking and health history can affect the risk of pancreatic cancer.
- Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain, and weight loss.
- Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect (find) and diagnose early.
The pancreas is a gland about 6 inches long that 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 between the stomach and the spine to make juices
that help digest (break down) food, and to make hormones, such as insulin
and glucagon, that help control blood sugar levels. Both of these hormones
help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.
The digestive juices are made by exocrine pancreas cells and the hormones
are made by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95% of pancreatic cancers
begin in exocrine cells.
Smoking and health history can affect the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk
factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not
having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk
with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include the following:
- Being very overweight.
- Having a personal history of diabetes or chronic pancreatitis.
- Having a family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis.
- Having certain hereditary conditions, such as:
- Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) syndrome.
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome).
- von Hippel-Lindau syndrome.
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.
- Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome.
- Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome.
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain, and weight loss.
Pancreatic cancer may not cause early signs or symptoms. Signs and symptoms
may be caused by pancreatic cancer or by other conditions. Check with
your doctor if you have any of the following:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
- Light-colored stools.
- Dark urine.
- Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back.
- Weight loss for no known reason.
- Loss of appetite.
- Feeling very tired.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect (find) and diagnose early for
the following reasons:
- There aren’t any noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages
of pancreatic cancer.
- The signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, when present, are like the
signs and symptoms of many other illnesses.
- The pancreas is hidden behind other organs such as the stomach, small intestine,
liver, gallbladder, spleen, and bile ducts.
Source: National Cancer Institute
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