What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer: Overview

Pancreatic cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow in the pancreas. Your pancreas is in your belly, behind your stomach. It makes juices that help your body digest food. It also makes insulin, which helps control your blood sugar level.

You may have more than one treatment at the same time. For example, you may have surgery to take out part or all of your pancreas. The surgery may include removing your spleen, common bile duct, part of your stomach, or part of your small intestine (duodenum). Other treatments may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.

You may need to take medicines to help you digest food and control your blood sugar. If you have pain, your doctor will give you medicine or other treatment to help you be more comfortable.

What happens when you have pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer happens when abnormal cells grow in the pancreas. It's usually found after it has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body. You may need medicines to control pain, help you digest food, and manage your blood sugar. Surgery, radiation therapy, and other treatments are often needed.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer usually doesn't cause symptoms at first. It's silent and painless. Symptoms usually don't begin until the cancer has spread. They may include:

  • Pain in the upper belly or back.
  • Jaundice. This yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes can happen when the growing tumor presses the bile duct closed.
  • Unexpected weight loss.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Extreme tiredness.

Of course, there are other conditions that cause these symptoms, so they don't necessarily mean you have cancer. But it's important to talk to your doctor if you have any of these problems.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Treatment for pancreatic cancer is based on the stage of the cancer and other things, such as your overall health. The main treatments include:

Surgery is done if all of the cancer can be removed. If all the cancer can’t be removed, other treatments are used.
The most common surgery removes part of the pancreas along with parts of nearby organs, like the small intestine. Nearby lymph nodes may also be removed and checked for cancer.
This uses high-dose X-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors.
These medicines kill fast-growing cells, including cancer cells and some normal cells. Chemotherapy and radiation may be given together (chemoradiation).

Other options may include immunotherapy or targeted therapy. Your doctor may suggest a clinical trial.

Your doctor will talk with you about your options and then make a treatment plan.

How are symptoms of pancreatic cancer managed?


Pain is one of the main concerns of people with pancreatic cancer. But cancer pain can almost always be controlled. You and your doctor have several options to manage your pain.

  • Prescription pain medicines. These are medicines your doctor prescribes when over-the-counter medicines don't work well enough to relieve pain.
  • Nerve blocks are injections of alcohol or another liquid into the area of pain. The liquid numbs the nerves, interrupting the pain signal being sent to your brain. In some cases, the nerves carrying the pain sensation are cut in surgery.
  • Sometimes radiation or chemotherapy can be used to help ease the pain by shrinking the tumor.

Digestive problems

Sometimes the tumor presses on and blocks the bile duct or upper intestine. This can cause jaundice and problems digesting food. A hollow tube called a stent may be placed to keep the bile duct open. Or a surgical bypass may be done to create a pathway around the blocked area.

What tests are done to stage pancreatic cancer?

Your doctor uses different tests to stage pancreatic cancer. Staging is a way to describe how far the cancer has spread.

You may have one or more of these imaging tests:

  • A CT scan, MRI, or PET-CT scan.
  • An endoscopic ultrasound.

These tests can show how big the tumor is, where it’s located, and if it’s spread to other parts of the body.

Your doctor may do a procedure called a staging laparoscopy to see if the cancer has spread outside of the pancreas. Through a small cut in your belly, your doctor uses a thin, lighted tool to look at the pancreas. Your doctor may also take a tissue sample (biopsy) to look for signs of cancer and tumor markers.

Knowing the stage of the cancer can help guide your treatment.

How can you care for yourself when you have pancreatic cancer?

Taking medicines as prescribed, eating healthy food, and getting enough sleep may help you feel better. It’s important to keep up your strength, so try to eat food with extra protein or calories. Get some physical activity each day if you can. Manage stress with relaxation techniques. Consider joining a support group to share your feelings.

What puts you at risk for pancreatic cancer?

Your risk of getting pancreatic cancer is higher if you:

  • Smoke.
  • Are very overweight or not active.
  • Have abnormal glucose metabolism or insulin resistance.
  • Have chronic pancreatitis.
  • Have a family history of pancreatic cancer.
  • Have certain rare inherited conditions, such as hereditary pancreatitis or Lynch syndrome.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

Experts don't know what causes pancreatic cancer. But they do know that changes in the body's DNA play a role in many cancers.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the pancreas. The pancreas is a small organ located deep in the belly, behind your stomach.

The pancreas makes juices that help your body digest food. It also makes insulin and other hormones that help control your blood sugar.

There are two main types of pancreatic tumors: exocrine and endocrine. The type of tumor depends on which type of cells are involved. Exocrine (say "EX-oh-krin") cells make digestive juices. Endocrine (say "EN-doh-krin") cells make insulin. Most people with pancreatic cancer have exocrine tumors, which grow faster than endocrine tumors.

Treatments are more successful when cancer is found early. But in most cases, pancreatic cancer has already spread by the time it is found. Still, treatment may help you feel better, and it helps some people live longer.

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.