What is Pancreatic Cancer?

By  , Expert Content
Aug 17, 2012

Pancreatic cancer is the name given to cancer that starts in the pancreas. The pancreas is located deep in the abdomen in front of the spine above the belly button. There are many important structures, such as the small intestine (the duodenum) and the bile ducts as well as important blood vessels and nerves in close relation to pancreas.

Pancreas has two important functions namely, secreting insulin and making enzymes that help to break down and digest proteins. Insulin is an important hormone that helps to regulate blood sugar level.  The enzymes secreted by the pancreas break the proteins into smaller parts so that they can be digested and absorbed from the intestine into blood and used for energy. The enzymes made by the pancreas are secreted in the intestine through a system of tubes called "pancreatic ducts" that connect the pancreas to the intestines.

What causes cancer?

The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not known. In the body, the cells grow and divide in an orderly way to form new cells as the body needs them. In other words, the old cells die and new cells take their place. When the cells (the building blocks that make up tissues) fail to follow this regulated pattern of growth and division, cancer cells are formed. In cancer, more cells than needed are formed and these extra cells form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumour. The cancer cells have the capability to invade i.e. spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems.

Some factors that increase the risk of pancreatic cancer include:

  • smoking
  • advanced age; the risk increases with age
  • male sex ; it is slightly more common in males as compared with females (male-to-female ratio of pancreatic cancer is 1.3:1).
  • chronic pancreatitis (chronic inflammation caused by any factor, such as excessive alcohol intake or gallstones)
  • diabetes mellitus
  • family history of pancreatic cancer


Pancreatic cancer in the initial stages is silent and painless (i.e. it does not cause any symptoms) in most cases. Therefore, it is often diagnosed in its advanced stage when the chances of cure are poor. Symptoms are non-specific and usually become evident after the cancer has grown and spread outside the pancreas to adjacent tissues. Some common symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, abdominal pain, weight loss, nausea and vomiting and pale coloured stool.


A major factor, which decides the treatment of pancreatic cancer, is the extent of the disease. If the cancer can be removed completely by surgery, it is treated surgically as complete surgical removal can cure pancreatic cancer. Chemotherapy (with or without radiotherapy) is usually given for locally advanced pancreatic cancers that are not amenable to surgical resection or metastatic cancers. Some people may be given chemotherapy after surgery as this can lower the chances of recurrence of cancer.



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