Pancreatic Cancer 101: Symptoms, Testing, and Prognosis

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Patient-friendly overview of pancreatic cancer and covers risk factors, symptoms, prognosis, and more.
Patient-friendly overview of pancreatic cancer and covers risk factors, symptoms, prognosis, and more.

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas.

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.

The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:

  • To make juices that help digest (break down) food.
  • 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.

This summary is about exocrine pancreatic cancer.

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:

  • Smoking.
  • 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.
Possible signs of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain, and weight loss.

These and other symptoms may be caused by pancreatic cancer. In the early stages of pancreatic cancer, there may not be any symptoms, or other conditions may cause the same symptoms.

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