Pancreatic cancer - what is it?

Postion of pancreas man imagePancreatic cancer occurs when a malignant tumour forms in the pancreas. There are two main types of pancreatic cancer:

Exocrine tumours

These make up the vast majority of all pancreatic cancers (around 90%) and come from the cells that line the ducts in the pancreas which carry digestive juices into the intestine. These are called pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas. Other exocrine tumours of the pancreas are rarer, and include adenosquamous carcinomas and undifferentiated carcinomas.

Endocrine tumours

These are known as neuroendocrine tumours, and are much less common. These tumours  sometimes make hormones such as insulin, and glucagon, to control blood sugar.   Often referred to as either PETs or islet cell tumours, they are very rare, making up just 2-5% of pancreatic tumours. Click for more information about Neuroendocrine Tumours.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

The causes of pancreatic cancer are not known. However, there are some risk factors that make developing pancreatic cancer more likely:

Click here for more detailed information on the causes and risks of pancreatic cancer

family groupHereditary pancreatic cancer

Most cases of pancreatic cancer are ‘sporadic’ i.e., they do not run in families. A tiny minority of people have inherited a faulty gene that increases their risk of getting pancreatic cancer. There are some rare medical syndromes which are known to increase the risk for pancreatic cancer.

Click here for more detailed information on hereditary pancreatic cancer

Other, rare tumours in the pancreas

Other rare tumours that can affect the pancreas include pancreatic lymphoma, a cancer that arises from the lymphatic tissue in the pancreas; various cystic tumours and pancreatic sarcomas which develop in the tissue that hold cells in the pancreas together.

Tumours that arise from tissues close to the pancreas, such as the bile duct (cholangiocarcinoma), Ampulla of Vater, (Ampullary adenocarcinoma), or duodenum (duodenal adenocarcinoma), may cause similar symptoms to pancreatic cancer but have different treatments and, importantly, a very different prognosis.

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Information Product No. PCA0011v1 | Published: 03/01/2014 | Last Updated: 31/07/2018 | Next Review Due: 03/01/2017