Pancreatic Cancer

The causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of pancreatic cancer

Doctor consulting with a patient :
Dann Tardif/Getty Images

Pancreatic cancer affects the pancreas, an organ that lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine. The pancreas is responsible for producing hormones like insulin and glucagon, which help control our blood sugar levels. It also produces enzymes that help breakdown protein and carbohydrates during digestion.

Like other organs in the body, the pancreas is vulnerable to cancer. There are several types of pancreatic cancer, however the most common is adenocarcinoma.

This type of cancer affects cells that produce digestive enzymes. Much less common types of pancreatic cancer include islet cell carcinoma, pancreatic blastoma, and pseudopapillary neoplasms.

Causes and Risk Factors

Although we cannot pinpoint what causes pancreatic cancer, researchers have identified several risk factors. A risk factor is something that increases the likelihood that you will develop pancreatic cancer, but is not a guarantee. Risk factors of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Smoking. Smokers are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers.
  • Race. African-Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer more frequently than other races. It is not yet known why this is true, but it may be related to higher rates of the other risk factors in this group.
  • Increasing age. The risk of developing pancreatic cancer greatly increases after age 50.
  • Having Diabetes. Pancreatic cancer is diagnosed more often in people with diabetes.
  • Chronic Pancreatitis. Chronic inflammation of the pancreas may slightly increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Family History. Pancreatic cancer runs in some families. About 10% of cases are thought to be related to inherited genetic mutations.


Many times there is a delay in diagnosing pancreatic cancer because the symptoms are also associated with many other illnesses.

Symptoms rarely occur in the early stages and are gradual.

Jaundice: At least 50% of people with pancreatic cancer experience this yellowing of the skin and of the whites of the eyes.

Other pancreatic cancer symptoms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Glucose intolerance
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal discomfort or pain
  • sudden onset of diabetes
  • brown or orange colored urine

When the cancer causes the pancreas produce too much insulin, other symptoms such as chills, diarrhea, general feeling of weakness, and muscle spasms may also be experienced.


Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to detect because symptoms are vague and can be seen in other conditions. It is rarely detected in the early stages when it is the most treatable. If your doctor suspects you may have pancreatic cancer, one of the first steps may be imaging tests like an ultrasound or MRI, which are done to get a better view of the pancreas. Your doctor may recommend you have an endoscopy combined with special techniques like an ultrasound to further evaluate the pancreas.


Ultimately it is a biopsy that confirms the presence or absence of cancer. A biopsy takes a sample of tissue from the pancreas and sends it for analysis by a pathologist. There are several ways to biopsy the pancreas, with the fine needle aspiration (FNA) procedure being the most common.

During a fine needle biopsy, a radiologist inserts a long, thin needle through the skin and to the pancreas. A small sample of tissue is removed and the needle is removed. During the biopsy, the radiologist may use an ultrasound or CT scan to help him through the procedure. A local anesthetic is given prior to the biopsy. Other biopsy methods that may be done during laparoscopic surgery or during an endoscopy.


There are three types of treatment methods for pancreatic cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Treatment heavily depends on the stage of pancreatic cancer, type, and the general health of the patient.


Surgery can be done to treat cases of pancreatic cancer that are considered curable. Surgery can also be done to alleviate the symptoms caused by the tumor(s). A surgical procedure called a Whipple is most commonly performed in people whose cancer may be curable. During a Whipple, a large portion of the pancreas and parts of the stomach, small intestine, gallbladder and bile duct are removed. Less common surgical methods include a total or distal pancreatectomy, the removal of the entire pancreas.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be given prior to surgery to shrink tumors and eliminate cancer cells, improving the success rate of the surgery. These treatments aren't for every patient and depend on the stage of cancer and general health factors.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is also an option for treating some people with pancreatic cancer. High-energy beams of radiation damage cancer cells so they cannot multiply. Although radiation therapy can damage nearby healthy cells, they are often able to fully recover.


Chemotherapy may be prescribed to treat pancreatic cancer. Chemotherapy drugs work by eliminating rapidly multiplying cancer cells. At the same time they may impair quick-dividing healthy cells, such as in the hair follicles. This can lead to hair loss and other side effects.


There are simply no proven means of preventing pancreatic cancer. By avoiding what risk factors we can, we may be able to reduce our chances of developing it.

Smoking is a significant risk factor for pancreatic cancer. As soon as you quit, your body reaps the benefits of being tobacco free. Need help kicking the habit? Visit our Smoking Cessation site.


American Cancer Society, Detailed Guide: Pancreatic cancer.