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Cancer is a disease in which cells grow in an abnormal way. Normally, the cells divide in a controlled manner. If cells keep dividing when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue called a tumor forms.

A tumor can be benign or malignant. A benign tumor is not cancer and will not spread to other parts of the body. A malignant tumor is cancer. Cancer cells invade and damage tissue around them. They can also enter the lymph and blood streams, spreading to other parts of the body. Pancreatic cancer is the development of malignant cells in the pancreas.

Normal Anatomy and the Development of Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is an organ located behind and to the right of the stomach, near the liver, gall bladder, and intestine.

Sections of the pancreas:

  • Head—on the right side, closest to the first part of the small intestine
  • Body—in the middle, located behind the stomach
  • Tail—on the left side, closest to the spleen

The Pancreas
The Pancreas

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

The pancreas is made up of endocrine and exocrine cells. Each cell type has a different function. The endocrine, or islet cells, produce a number of different chemicals called hormones that enter the bloodstream and travel to other areas of the body to exert their effects. For example, the islet cells of the pancreas produce insulin, which breaks down and uses or stores sugars from food.

The exocrine cells of the pancreas produce digestive juices that travel through a system of tubes called ducts into the first section of the small intestine. These digestive juices contain enzymes that help process fat, protein, and carbohydrates in food, breaking them down into smaller units for better use by the body. The pancreas plays a crucial role in the body’s ability to process food, making it able to generate and use energy.

Pancreatic cancer greatly interferes with these functions, by damaging and destroying normal cells within the pancreas. Cancer of the exocrine cells occurs much more frequently than cancer of the islet cells of the pancreas. In fact, about 95% of all pancreatic cancers are within the exocrine system. This report covers aspects of this more common form of pancreatic cancer, called adenocarcinoma.

Pancreatic cancer represents 3% of all new cases of cancer diagnoses in the United States. Currently, there are no methods of detecting pancreatic cancer at an early stage. Furthermore, the condition usually progresses very rapidly; the average lifespan after diagnosis is 4-8 months. The 5-year survival rate is nearly 7%. It is estimated that 48,960 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, with an estimated 40,560 deaths.


Cruz MD, Young AP, et al. Diagnosis and management of pancreatic cancer. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89(8):626-632.

Pancreatic cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed October 5, 2015.

Pancreatic cancer. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated February 23, 2015. Accessed October 5, 2015.

Pancreatic cancer. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated July 2014. Accessed October 5, 2015.

SEER stat fact sheets: Pancreatic cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Accessed October 5, 2015.

Last reviewed September 2015 by Mohei Abouzied, MD  Last Updated: 9/17/2014

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