Pancreatic cancer overview
Around 8,800 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year in the UK.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the more rare cancers, its tendency to spread before detection makes it particularly deadly. Most people diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas are over 60. Men tend to be more affected than women.
What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is a gland located behind your stomach and in front of your spine. It produces digestive juices and hormones that regulate blood sugar.
The enzymes that help us digest our food come from exocrine pancreas cells. It is in these cells that the majority of pancreatic cancers start.
Pancreatic cancer symptoms
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
Types of pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer is classified according to which part of the pancreas is affected: the part that makes digestive secretions (exocrine) or the part that makes insulin and other hormones (endocrine).
Exocrine pancreatic cancer
Although there are several different types of pancreatic cancer, 95% of cases are due to pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
Other less common exocrine pancreatic cancers include:
- Cystic tumours
- Acinar cell carcinoma
The exocrine pancreas makes up 95% of the pancreas, so it's not surprising that most pancreatic cancers arise here.
Endocrine pancreatic cancer
Other cells of the pancreas make hormones that are released directly into the bloodstream (endocrine system). Cancers arising from one of these cells are called neuroendocrine cancers.
- Endocrine pancreatic cancers are quite rare, and are named according to what kind of hormone-producing cell it starts from:
- Insulinomas (from an insulin-producing cell)
- Glucagonomas (from a glucagon-producing cell)
- Somatostatinomas (from a somatostatin-making cell)
- Gastrinomas (from a gastrin-producing cell)
- VIPomas (from vasoactive intestinal peptide-making cell)
Only a small proportion of neuroendocrine tumours are cancerous. Most endocrine tumours are usually not cancerous; they are benign non-malignant growths. However, they may grow to a large size or secrete unhealthy quantities of hormones, causing medical problems.
Causes of pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in the pancreas grow, divide, and spread uncontrollably, forming a malignant tumour. The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown.
Smoking is the major risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Cigarette smoking roughly doubles the risk of pancreatic cancer. People with diabetes or chronic pancreatitis are also at increased risk.
Age, male gender and family history are other risk factors for pancreatic cancer.
Prevention of pancreatic cancer
There is no known way to prevent pancreatic cancer. Not smoking and keeping a healthy weight should reduce your risk of developing pancreatic cancer.