Pancreatic cancer is cancer of the pancreas, an organ deep within the body, behind that stomach, that stretches across the abdomen. The pancreas has two types of glands: exocrine glands, which make the pancreatic “juice” that breaks down fats and proteins in foods so the body can use them; and endocrine glands, which make hormones such as insulin that help balance the amount of sugar in the blood. About 95 percent of pancreatic cells are exocrine cells; while both cell types can form tumors, tumors of the exocrine cells are much more common. In fact, when someone is said to have pancreatic cancer, it usually means pancreatic exocrine cancer, rather than pancreatic endocrine cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. It is twice as common in Europe than in the United States, a fact that is attributable to factors such as increased smoking in European countries. While pancreatic cancer is most commonly found in individuals over the age of 65, it can be diagnosed in younger people, especially those with a family history of the disease.
Each type of pancreatic cancer has its own symptoms, is diagnosed using different tests, is treated differently and has a different prognosis.
About 95 percent of exocrine tumors are a type of cancer called pancreatic adenocarcinoma. This is also a type of cancer, called ampullary cancer, that forms where the bile duct and the pancreatic duct empty into the small intestine. This cancer is often spotted early because it causes obvious signs such as the yellowing of the skin and eyes, which means there is a better chance of survival.
These less-common tumors, called islet cell tumors or neuroendocrine tumors, are usually (but not always) benign.