A caregiver providing comfort to a cancer patient

Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas consists of two types of cells that can give rise to pancreatic cancer.

Most pancreatic cancers (adenocarcinomas) begin in cells known as exocrine cells that are responsible for producing enzymes that are secreted into the intestine to help digest proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Much less common are cancers (neuroendocrine tumors) that arise in endocrine cells that produce hormones, including insulin, that regulate processes ranging from blood sugar to the amount of acid in the stomach.

Pancreatic cancer is uncommon, but since the majority of these cancers are in the advanced stages at the time of diagnosis, it is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapies, radiation therapy, and clinical trials. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes pancreatic cancer?

    The causes of pancreatic cancer are unclear, but risk factors may include having a family history of pancreatic cancer or genetic syndromes linked to pancreatic cancer, diabetes, advanced gum disease, pancreatitis (chronic inflammation of the pancreas), obesity, smoking, or heavy alcohol use. Risk also increases with age and almost all people are diagnosed after age 45.

  • What are the signs of pancreatic cancer?

    Symptoms may include painless jaundice, upper abdominal pain that radiates to the back, a hard lump in the upper abdomen, and the unexpected onset of diabetes. It can also include weight loss, loss of appetite, and sometimes depression.

  • Is pancreatic cancer curable?

    For early-stage cancers, surgery offers a chance to cure the disease. Unfortunately, only approximately 15% to 20% of people are candidates for surgery (for the remainder, the cancer has spread too far for surgery to improve survival).

  • Is pancreatic cancer hereditary?

    Familial risk accounts for 5 to 10% of pancreatic cancers, and inherited genetic syndromes account for 3 to 5%. Those with a first-degree family history of pancreatic cancer or genetic diseases and mutations, such as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome caused by BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (polyps form in intestines), and hereditary pancreatitis, are considered high risk.

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Page Sources
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  2. National Cancer Institute. Cancer stat facts: pancreatic cancer

  3. American Cancer Society. Pancreatic cancer risk factors. Updated February 11, 2019.

  4. National Cancer Institute. Surgery. Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. Updated July 15, 2019.

  5. Aslanian HR, Lee JH, Canto MI. AGA clinical practice update on pancreas cancer screening in high-risk individuals: expert review. Gastroenterology. 2020;S0016-5085(20)30657-0. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2020.03.088

  6. National Cancer Institute. Adenocarcinoma. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms.

  7. American Cancer Society. Surgery for pancreatic cancer. Updated February 11, 2019.