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Pancreatic cancer is cancer that begins in the pancreas, a gland behind the stomach and in front of the spine. The pancreas produces the enzymes that help break down food and the hormones that help control blood sugar levels. Pancreatic cancer usually begins in the cells that produce the enzymes.1

Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the U.S. and about 7% of all cancer deaths.2

  • Pancreatic cancer is cancer that begins in the pancreas. There are different types of pancreatic cancer depending on where the cancer forms—whether in the exocrine or endocrine cells.3

    Most pancreatic cancers are exocrine tumors. Most of the pancreas is made up of exocrine cells which form the exocrine glands and ducts. Exocrine glands in the pancreas make specialized proteins called enzymes that are released into the small intestine to help the body digest and break down food, particularly fats. There are several types of exocrine tumors (e.g., adenocarcinoma, acinar adenocarcinoma).3,4

    Endocrine cells make up a smaller percentage of the cells in the pancreas. This portion of the pancreas makes specific hormones, most importantly insulin (the substance that helps control the amount of sugar in the blood) and other hormones that regulate metabolism. Endocrine tumors, also called neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs), are much less common and account for about 7% of pancreatic cancers.3,4

    Pancreatic growths can be cancerous or non-cancerous (or benign).3

  • The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not known. However, there are several known risk factors that may increase your chances of developing it. These risk factors include:5

    • Tobacco use.
    • Being overweight or obese.
    • Diabetes.
    • Chronic pancreatitis. This is a long-term inflammation of the pancreas which is often seen with heavy alcohol use and smoking.
    • Exposure to certain chemicals use in dry cleaning and metal working industries.
    • Older age. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 70.
    • Being male.
    • Being African American.
    • Family history of pancreatic cancer.
    • Family history of genetic mutation of certain genes (e.g., BRCA1 or BRCA2, PALB2, STK11), or ones associated with Lynch syndrome and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome.
  • Early pancreatic cancers often do not cause any signs or symptoms.6

    Signs or symptoms may include:6,7

    • Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
    • Dark colored urine
    • Light colored or greasy stool
    • Itchy skin
    • Belly or back pain
    • Weight loss and fatigue
    • Poor appetite
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Gallbladder or liver enlargement
    • Blood clots
    • Diabetes
  • There is no one specific test to diagnose pancreatic cancer. Healthcare providers often use a physical exam, blood tests, imaging tests, and a biopsy to diagnose it.1,7

  • Because it is often found late and it spreads quickly, pancreatic cancer can be hard to treat. Possible treatments include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy (using medicines or other substances that attack specific cancer cells and less so on normal cells).1

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