Pancreatic cancer - what is it?

Postion of pancreas man imagePancreatic cancer occurs when a malignant tumour forms in the pancreas.  Click here for more information about the pancreas and what it does.

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:

Cigarette Smoking – There is a direct relationship between the amount you smoke and the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Age – The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age.

Chronic Pancreatitis – Long-term inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) has been linked to pancreatic cancer.

Diabetes – There have been a number of reports which suggest that diabetics have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Obesity – Recent studies have shown that risk is higher in people who are obese (have a Body Mass Index more than 30). Some studies show that obese women who carry their weight on their stomach area are at an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

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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Our publications and the public health information contained on this website are produced under the Information Standard certified scheme. Our publications are reviewed by medical professionals and people who have been affected by pancreatic cancer.

The information provided in this site, or through links to other websites, is not a substitute for medical or professional care and should not be relied upon as such. Read our disclaimer.

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Information Product No. PCA0011v1 | Published: 03/01/2014 | Last Updated: 19/01/2017 | Next Review Due: 03/01/2017