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Pancreatic cancer

Overview of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer refers to a malignant tumor in the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ that sits just below your stomach and is responsible for making certain hormones and aiding in digestion.

Pancreatic cancer is a rare type of cancer. In the United States, it represents only about 3 percent of all cancers.

Our compassionate oncologists at Dignity Health provide expert treatment for pancreatic cancer. Find a Doctor near you today for personalized care.


The pancreas lies deep in your abdomen, behind the stomach. This makes it virtually impossible to feel tumors as they develop and grow. Most people don’t notice any symptoms of pancreatic cancer unless the cancer cells begin to spread into lymph nodes or other organs, like the liver.

When symptoms of pancreatic cancer do develop, they may include:

  • Jaundice (when skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow)
  • Blood clots
  • Changes in bowel movements, such as pale or grey stool
  • Digestive problems
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Swelling in the abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss, weakness, lack of appetite, or nausea and vomiting

Since a number of noncancerous conditions could cause these symptoms, your doctor will likely recommend testing to rule them out.


Pancreatic cancer occurs when the cells of the pancreas mutate and reproduce abnormally, forming a tumor.

Researchers haven’t yet uncovered the precise cause of pancreatic and other cancers.


There are two basic types of pancreatic cancer.

  • Exocrine tumors are the most common type. Exocrine tumors affect the glands that make digestive enzymes and release them into the intestines. Adenocarcinoma, the most common type of exocrine tumor, represents about 95 percent of this type of pancreatic cancer. Although it is rare, squamous cell, acinar cell, and other carcinomas can also cause exocrine tumors.
  • Endocrine tumors affect pancreatic islets cells, which make hormones such as insulin and glucagon. Some types of endocrine tumors include insulinomas glucageonomas, gastrinomas, and somatostatinomas. Endocrine tumors are uncommon: they make up less than 4 percent of pancreatic cancers.

Risk factors

Experts don’t fully understand what causes pancreatic cancer, but have found that some risk factors increase the likelihood. These include:

  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • African American race
  • Being male: men are 30 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer
  • Age: most people with the disease are older than 60
  • Excess weight: being obese makes pancreatic cancer 20 percent more likely
  • Tobacco use: up to 30 percent of pancreatic cancers are linked to cigarette smoking (cigars and smokeless tobacco also increase risk)
  • Genetics: about 1 in 10 pancreatic cancers are related to gene mutations such as BRCA2, p16/CDKN2A, and PRSS1
  • Previous diagnosis of diabetes, pancreatitis, cirrhosis (liver disease), stomach cancer, or infection of H. pylori bacteria in the stomach
  • Environmental exposures: environmental toxins, such as radiation, pesticides, and some dyes increase the chances of cellular damage leading to cancer


While cancer isn’t totally preventable, there are things you can do to stay as healthy as possible and reduce risk.

Some protective factors that reduce the likelihood of pancreatic cancer are:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Not smoking
  • Avoiding recreational drugs
  • Eating a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables
  • Limiting the consumption of alcohol

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.