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Pancreatic Cancer

(Cancer of the Pancreas)


Anthony Villano

, MD, Fox Chase Cancer Center

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2023
Topic Resources
  • Smoking, chronic pancreatitis, obesity, and exposure to certain chemicals are risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

  • Abdominal pain, weight loss, jaundice, and vomiting are some typical symptoms.

  • Computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging followed by endoscopic ultrasonography and biopsy are diagnostic techniques.

  • Treatment is a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.

  • Pancreatic cancer is usually fatal.

The pancreas Pancreas The pancreas is an organ that contains two types of glandular tissue: Pancreatic acini Islets of Langerhans (See also Overview of the Digestive System.) The acini produce digestive enzymes.... read more Pancreas is an organ located in the upper part of the abdomen. It produces digestive juices that are secreted into the digestive tract. The pancreas also produces insulin, which helps control blood sugar.

Most cancerous (malignant) tumors of the pancreas are adenocarcinomas. Adenocarcinomas usually originate in the cells lining the pancreatic duct. Most adenocarcinomas occur in the head of the pancreas, the part nearest the first segment of the small intestine Small Intestine The duodenum is the first segment of the small intestine, and the stomach releases food into it. Food enters the duodenum through the pyloric sphincter in amounts that the small intestine can... read more (duodenum).

Locating the Pancreas

Locating the Pancreas

Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas has become increasingly common in the United States, occurring in an estimated 64,050 people each year and causing about 50,550 deaths each year. Adenocarcinoma usually does not develop before age 50. The average age at diagnosis is 55. These tumors are nearly twice as common among men.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include

The Pancreas

Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas is more common among smokers than nonsmokers. People with chronic pancreatitis are at greater risk as well. People who have relatives with the disease may be at increased risk.

Alcohol and caffeine consumption do not seem to be risk factors.

Rare types of pancreatic cancer

Cystadenocarcinoma of the pancreas is a rare type of pancreatic cancer that develops from a fluid-filled noncancerous (benign) tumor called a cystadenoma. It often causes upper abdominal pain and may grow large enough for a doctor to feel it through the abdominal wall.

Only 20% of people with cystadenocarcinoma have tumors that have metastasized (spread) by the time surgery is done. Therefore, cystadenocarcinoma has a much better prognosis than adenocarcinoma. If the cancer has not spread and the whole pancreas is removed surgically, the person has a 65% chance of surviving for at least 5 years.

Intraductal papillary-mucinous neoplasm is a rare type of pancreatic tumor characterized by enlargement (dilation) of the main pancreatic duct, mucus overproduction, recurring episodes of pancreatitis Acute Pancreatitis Acute pancreatitis is sudden inflammation of the pancreas that may be mild or life threatening but usually subsides. Gallstones and alcohol abuse are the main causes of acute pancreatitis. Severe... read more , and occasional pain. These tumors can be cancerous or noncancerous.

The diagnosis of intraductal papillary-mucinous neoplasm is made by CT or MRI, and sometimes by endoscopic ultrasound Ultrasound Scanning (Ultrasonography) of the Abdomen Ultrasound scanning uses sound waves to produce pictures of internal organs (see also Ultrasonography). An ultrasound scan can show the size and shape of many organs, such as the liver and pancreas... read more Ultrasound Scanning (Ultrasonography) of the Abdomen (which shows the lining of the digestive tract more clearly because the probe is placed on the tip of the endoscope), with biopsy and analysis of the cyst fluid.

Treatment is usually surgery. With surgery, people with noncancerous intraductal papillary-mucinous tumors have a greater than 95% chance of surviving for 5 years. People with cancerous intraductal papillary-mucinous tumors have a 50 to 75% chance of surviving 5 years.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

In the early stages, pancreatic cancer typically causes no symptoms until the tumor has grown large. Thus, at the time of diagnosis, the tumor has already spread (metastasized) beyond the pancreas in 90% of cases.

Eventually, most people develop severe upper abdominal pain, which may also be felt in the middle of the back. The pain may be relieved by bending forward or assuming the fetal position.

Weight loss is common.

Complications of pancreatic cancer

Adenocarcinomas in the head of the pancreas can interfere with the drainage of bile (the digestive fluid produced by the liver) into the small intestine (see Gallbladder and Biliary Tract Gallbladder and Biliary Tract The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped, muscular storage sac that holds bile and is interconnected to the liver by ducts known as the biliary tract. (See also Overview of the Liver and Gallbladder... read more Gallbladder and Biliary Tract ). Therefore, jaundice Jaundice in Adults In jaundice, the skin and whites of the eyes look yellow. Jaundice occurs when there is too much bilirubin (a yellow pigment) in the blood—a condition called hyperbilirubinemia. (See also Overview... read more Jaundice in Adults (a yellowish discoloration of the skin and the whites of the eyes) caused by obstruction of bile flow is typically an early symptom. The jaundice is accompanied by itchiness all over the body resulting from the deposit of bile salt crystals under the skin. Vomiting may result from instances when cancer in the head of the pancreas obstructs the flow of stomach contents into the small intestine (gastric outlet obstruction) or obstructs the small intestine itself.

Adenocarcinomas in the body or tail of the pancreas may obstruct the vein draining the spleen (the organ that produces, monitors, stores, and destroys blood cells), resulting in enlargement of the spleen (splenomegaly). Obstruction can also cause the veins to become swollen and twisted (varicose) around the esophagus (esophageal varices Esophageal Varices Esophageal varices are enlarged veins in the esophagus, which can cause major bleeding. Esophageal varices are caused by high blood pressure in blood vessels in and around the liver (portal... read more Esophageal Varices ) and stomach. Severe bleeding may result, particularly from the esophagus, if these varicose veins rupture.

Certain cells in the pancreas produce insulin, a hormone that is essential to control blood sugar levels. Lack of insulin causes diabetes Diabetes Mellitus (DM) Diabetes mellitus is a disorder in which the body does not produce enough or respond normally to insulin, causing blood sugar (glucose) levels to be abnormally high. Symptoms of diabetes may... read more . Thus, because pancreatic cancer cells replace normal pancreatic cells, diabetes develops in up to half of people with pancreatic cancer, which leads to symptoms of high blood sugar, such as frequently urinating large volumes and excessive thirst.

Pancreatic cancer can also interfere with production of digestive enzymes by the pancreas, resulting in problems breaking down food and absorbing nutrients (malabsorption Overview of Malabsorption Malabsorption syndrome refers to a number of disorders in which nutrients from food are not absorbed properly in the small intestine. Certain disorders, infections, and surgical procedures can... read more ). This malabsorption causes bloating and gas and a watery, greasy, and/or foul-smelling diarrhea, leading to weight loss and vitamin deficiencies.

Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer

  • Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging/magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRI/MRCP) followed by endoscopic ultrasonography with biopsy

Early diagnosis of tumors in the body or tail of the pancreas is difficult because symptoms occur late and physical examination and blood test results are often normal. When adenocarcinoma of the pancreas is suspected, the preferred tests are CT Computed Tomography and Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Digestive Tract Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are good tests for assessing the size and location of abdominal organs. Additionally, cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous... read more or a specialized type of MRI called MRCP (see Magnetic Resonance Imaging Magnetic Resonance Imaging Imaging tests of the liver, gallbladder, and biliary tract include ultrasonography, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography... read more ). These imaging tests are usually followed by endoscopic ultrasonography Ultrasonography Imaging tests of the liver, gallbladder, and biliary tract include ultrasonography, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography... read more (a tiny ultrasound probe on the tip of an endoscope is passed through the mouth into the stomach and the first segment of the small intestine). A tissue sample (biopsy) can be taken through the endoscope during the procedure.

To confirm the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, a doctor may obtain a sample of the pancreas for examination under a microscope (biopsy) by inserting a needle through the skin using CT or an ultrasound scan Ultrasound Scanning (Ultrasonography) of the Abdomen Ultrasound scanning uses sound waves to produce pictures of internal organs (see also Ultrasonography). An ultrasound scan can show the size and shape of many organs, such as the liver and pancreas... read more Ultrasound Scanning (Ultrasonography) of the Abdomen as a guide. However, this approach sometimes misses the tumor. The same approach may be used to obtain a biopsy sample from the liver to look for cancer that has spread from the pancreas. If the results of these tests are normal but the doctor still strongly suspects adenocarcinoma, the pancreas may be evaluated surgically.

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (see figure ) is another test that may be done for people who have jaundice. Blood tests are also done.

Treatment of Pancreatic Cancer

  • Surgery

  • Chemotherapy or combination chemotherapy and radiation therapy (chemoradiation)

  • Pain relievers

The only hope of a cure is surgery, but surgery can be done only in people whose cancer has not spread. However, in most people, the tumor has already spread at the time of diagnosis. With surgery, either the pancreas and some of the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum) or just parts of the pancreas are removed.

Chemotherapy or chemoradiation may be given before surgery.

Obstruction of bile flow may be temporarily relieved by placement of a tube (stent) in the lower portion of the duct that drains bile from the liver and gallbladder. An alternative treatment method is the surgical creation of a channel that bypasses the obstruction. For example, an obstruction of the small intestine can be bypassed by a channel that connects the stomach with a portion of the small intestine that is beyond the obstruction. If these procedures do not relieve itchiness, people may be given cholestyramine by mouth.

Mild pain may be relieved by aspirin or acetaminophen. Most often, stronger painkillers, such as codeine, oxycodone, or morphine, are needed. For people with severe pain, injections into nerves to block pain sensations provide relief.

The lack of pancreatic digestive enzymes can be treated with oral enzyme preparations. If diabetes develops, insulin treatment may be needed.

Prognosis for Pancreatic Cancer

Because adenocarcinoma of the pancreas has often spread to other parts of the body before it is discovered, the prognosis for pancreatic cancer is very poor. Fewer than 2% of people with adenocarcinoma of the pancreas survive for 5 years after the diagnosis.

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