About pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in any part of the pancreas. About 70% of pancreatic cancers are found in the head of the pancreas.
Pancreatic cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes and to the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum). Cancer cells may also travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, such as the liver.
Learn more about:
- What are the main types of pancreatic cancer?
- The pancreas
- Who gets pancreatic cancer?
- What causes pancreatic cancer?
- Does pancreatic cancer run in families?
- What can you expect after diagnosis?
- Video: What is pancreatic cancer?
What are the main types of pancreatic cancer?
There are two main types of pancreatic cancer:
These make up more than 95% of pancreatic cancers. The most common type is called adenocarcinoma, and it starts in the exocrine cells lining the pancreatic duct. Less common types include adenosquamous carcinoma, acinar cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and undifferentiated carcinoma.
Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (NETs)
About 5% of cancers in the pancreas are pancreatic NETs. These start in the endocrine cells.
Our pancreatic cancer information is about exocrine tumours of the pancreas, particularly pancreatic adenocarcinomas. For information about how pancreatic NETs are diagnosed and treated, see Neuroendocrine tumours.
The pancreas is a long, flat gland about 13–15 cm long that lies between your stomach and spine. It is divided into three main parts:
- the large rounded end, called the head of the pancreas
- the middle part, known as the body
- the narrow end, called the tail.
A tube called the pancreatic duct connects the pancreas to the first part of the small bowel (duodenum). Another tube, called the common bile duct, joins with the pancreatic duct and connects the liver and gall bladder to the duodenum.
What the pancreas does
The pancreas has two main jobs. It makes digestive juices (known as its exocrine function) and hormones (its endocrine function).
Exocrine function – The pancreas is part of the digestive system, which helps the body digest food and turn it into energy. Exocrine cells make pancreatic enzymes, which are digestive juices. The pancreatic duct carries these juices from the pancreas into the duodenum, where they help to break down food. Most of the pancreas is made up of exocrine tissue.
Endocrine function – The pancreas is also part of the endocrine system, a group of glands that makes the body’s hormones. Endocrine cells in the pancreas make hormones that control blood sugar levels, the amount of acid produced by the stomach, and how quickly food is absorbed. For example, the hormone insulin decreases the level of sugar in the blood, while the hormone glucagon increases it.
The pancreas in the body
Who gets pancreatic cancer?
About 4260 Australians are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. More than 80% are over the age of 60.
Pancreatic cancer was estimated to be the eighth most common cancer in Australia in 2021. A person has a 1 in 69 chance of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer by the age of 85.
What causes pancreatic cancer?
Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Known risk factors include:
The causes of pancreatic cancer are not known, but research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Factors that are known to increase the risk of getting pancreatic cancer include:
- smoking tobacco (smokers are about twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as nonsmokers)
- eating too much red and processed meat
- drinking too much alcohol
- long-term diabetes (but diabetes can also be caused by the pancreatic cancer)
- long-term pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- certain types of cysts in the pancreatic duct known as intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms (IPMNs) – these should be assessed by an appropriate specialist
- stomach infections caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacteria (which can also cause stomach ulcers)
- family history and inherited conditions
- workplace exposure to certain pesticides, dyes or chemicals.
Having risk factors does not mean you will definitely get cancer, but talk to your doctor if you are concerned. Some people with pancreatic cancer have no known risk factors.
Screening tests help detect cancer in people who do not have any symptoms. Although there are useful screening tests for certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer and bowel cancer, there is currently no screening test available for pancreatic cancer.
Does pancreatic cancer run in families?
Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer do not have a family history of the disease. Only about 5–10% of people who develop pancreatic cancer have inherited a faulty gene that increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
You may have inherited a faulty gene linked to pancreatic cancer if:
- two or more of your close family members (such as a parent or sibling) have had pancreatic cancer
- there is a family history of a genetic condition, such as Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, the familial breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2), familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome, Lynch syndrome and hereditary pancreatitis.
Genetic testing aims to find inherited faulty genes that may increase a person’s risk of developing some cancers. People with a strong family history of cancer can go to a family cancer clinic for genetic counselling and tests.
For more information about family history and pancreatic cancer, talk to your doctor or local family cancer clinic or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
What can you expect after diagnosis?
It’s common to have many questions and concerns about what a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer will mean for you. We explain the process of diagnosis, treatment options for removing the cancer and managing symptoms, and coping with physical changes that affect what you can eat.
Diagnosis stage – You will have various tests to confirm that you have pancreatic cancer, and to work out which type and how far it has progressed. The results will help guide decisions about treatment.
Treatment to remove the cancer – About 15–20% of people with pancreatic cancer can have surgery to remove the cancer. They may also be offered other treatments before or after the surgery.
Treatment to manage cancer and symptoms – Most people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed at a stage when the cancer cannot be removed. Treatment will aim to control the cancer, manage symptoms and improve quality of life.
Managing your diet and nutrition – People with pancreatic cancer often need to adapt to changes in how their body processes food, either because of the cancer itself or because of the treatment.
If you are feeling overwhelmed or would just like to talk through your concerns, you can call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to speak to one of our experienced health professionals.
Video: What is pancreatic cancer?
In this video experts explain the role of the pancreas, what pancreatic cancer is, how it starts, how it spreads, the types of pancreas cancer, and what may cause it. We also hear from people who have been affected by this disease.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Dr Benjamin Loveday, Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary (HPB) Surgeon, Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Katherine Allsopp, Palliative Medicine Physician, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Hollie Bevans, Senior Dietitian, Radiotherapy and Oncology, Western Health, VIC; Dr Lorraine Chantrill, Head of Department Medical Oncology, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District, NSW; Amanda Maxwell, Consumer; Prof Michael Michael, Medical Oncologist, Lower and Upper GI Oncology Service, Co-Chair Neuroendocrine Unit, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and University of Melbourne, VIC; Dr Andrew Oar, Radiation Oncologist, Icon Cancer Centre, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Meg Rogers, Nurse Consultant Upper GI/NET Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Ady Sipthorpe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.
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