December 15, 2022

Understanding Pancreatic Cancer

Photo of an older, white-haired man standing in front of a lake

The pancreas is an organ that makes digestive juices that assist in the breakdown of food in the intestines. It also produces insulin, which helps control the way the body uses sugars. The pancreas is approximately 6 inches long and 2 inches wide and is located near the start of the small intestine.

Pancreatic cancer occurs when either of the two main types of cells in the pancreas — exocrine cells that make digestive juices and endocrine cells that make hormones — begin to grow abnormally. Approximately 95% of pancreas cells are exocrine cells, and that same percentage of pancreatic cancers are exocrine cancers called adenocarcinoma.  

Cancer that develops in the endocrine cells occurs in the form of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors. This is a slow-growing type of cancer whose prognosis and treatment are different from that of adenocarcinoma.

Pancreatic cancer is typically an aggressive form of cancer that quickly spreads to nearby organs and while the condition accounts for just 3% of cancer cases in the United States, it accounts for as much as 7% of all cancer fatalities. This form of cancer is also seldom detected early and when time is so valuable it is important to recognize the warning signs of this disease as soon as possible and discuss the symptoms with a medical professional.

Pancreatic cancer typically is incurable, but has the potential to be curable if caught very early.

What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer almost always occurs in people who are over the age of 45. Two-thirds of the cases are diagnosed in those over 65, and men are slightly more likely to develop the disease than women. 

Besides age, risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • Smoking (smokers are twice as likely as non-smokers to develop the disease)
  • Exposure to certain chemical carcinogens
  • Obesity (high body mass index)
  • Inactivity
  • Increased height
  • Eating an excessive amount of protein and dietary fat
  • Low fiber intake
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer, chronic pancreatitis, breast cancer, familial melanoma syndrome, hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer syndrome, or Peutz-Jeghers syndrome 

Never Miss a Beat

Get the health and wellness news that matters most delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe to our free email newsletter to stay up-to-date on the latest news and more.

What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?

In many instances, symptoms of pancreatic cancer don’t occur until the disease is advanced. They can include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain that radiates to the back
  • Dark urine
  • Light-colored stools
  • Itchy skin
  • Blood clots
  • Diabetes diagnosis or trouble controlling existing diabetes
  • Enlarged liver or gallbladder
  • Nausea and vomiting

Other conditions can also cause these symptoms. If you experience any of them, you should contact your doctor.  

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed and Treated

To determine if you have pancreatic cancer, your doctor will order several tests. They may include imaging like computerized tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and endoscopic ultrasound, as well as blood tests and tissue biopsies. 

Treatment for pancreatic cancer is focused on removing or shrinking it if possible using surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. 

Because pancreatic cancer symptoms typically don’t develop until the disease is advanced, it’s often a terminal illness. If it can’t be removed, the emphasis of treatment is on minimizing symptoms and helping the patient be comfortable. This is known as palliative care.

Learn About Cancer Care Services at Baptist Health

Baptist Health provides world-class cancer care using the latest diagnostic technology and treatments methods. This includes clinical trials of new treatments. 

If you have questions or concerns about cancer, talk with your Baptist Health physician as soon as you can. If you don’t have a Baptist Health doctor, you can find one using our provider directory

Next Steps and Useful Resources

Find a Provider
The Early Warning Signs of Pancreatic Cancer
What’s the Difference Between Cancer Cells & Normal Cells?
What is Palliative Care & How is it Different from Hospice?

Learn More.