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Pancreatic Cancer Overview

Pancreatic Cancer is a growth of abnormal cells within the pancreas. Currently, pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common gastrointestinal cancer in the United States. The pancreas is a 6-10 inch organ found lying horizontally below the stomach that has both endocrine and exocrine functions. It not only secretes digestive juices but it also secretes hormones that are used throughout the body.

Pancreatic cancer is named depending on where the cancer originates. Cancers found in the ducts or the cells that produce digestive enzymes are called adenocarcinomas, and they account for the vast majority of pancreatic cancer cases. Tumors originating in the hormone producing cells of the pancreas are called neuroendocrine tumors. There are many types of neuroendocrine tumors including insulinomas, gastrinomas and glucagonomas.

Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas has an extremely high rate of morbidity and mortality. According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, over 37,000 new cases are diagnosed each year and over 33,000 deaths occur each year. The mortality rate is nearly 90% making it the deadliest of all cancers. The disease has a very poor prognosis with the chances of living past 5 years around 5%. Early detection is key, though difficult in this form of cancer.

Risk Factors

There are several risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

  • Age – most people who develop pancreatic cancer are over the age of 60.
  • Smoking – Smoking is the largest lifestyle choice associated with pancreatic cancer with smokers being almost twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as a nonsmoker. Cigarette smoking is the causative factor for up to a third of all pancreatic cancer cases.
  • Diabetes – Pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people with diabetes than in people who do not have diabetes. In addition, many people with pancreas cancer are diagnosed with diabetes months prior to the diagnosis of pancreas cancer.
  • Sex – Being male increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Race – African American men and women have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer than do other races.
  • Obesity – People of higher weight have a greater chance of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Diet – Diets high in meat have a greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Pancreatitis – Chronic or Genetic pancreatitis have been correlated to pancreatic cancer cases.
  • Family History – A family history of cancer increases the risk of developing all kinds of cancer.


The causes of pancreatic cancer are not directly known, however genetic predispositions may have an effect. Studies have shown that lifestyle factors and environmental factors play more important roles in the development of pancreatic cancer.


Symptoms of pancreas cancer are related to the location of the tumor.

  • If the tumor occurs in the ‘head’ of the pancreas (the very beginning part near the bile duct), patients usually present with jaundice (yellow skin, eyes).
  • If the tumor originates in the body or tail of the pancreas, patients present late in their disease course with pain and weight loss.

Many of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer manifest themselves late in the disease. Many of the symptoms are also indicative of other diseases, which leads to misdiagnoses and late detection of the cancer. It is because the cancer is so hard to detect and the symptoms so general that the cancer is already in the metastatic stage before the disease is even recognized.

Some symptoms may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Back pain
  • Weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Itching
  • Turning yellow (eyes)
  • New onset diabetes (high blood sugar), especially in patients older than 50

To learn more about pancreatic cancer, please read the following articles:

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Go to the Pancreatic Cancer health topic.