What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when a malignant tumour forms in the pancreas. Worldwide there are around 338,000 new cases each year; in Europe that figure is more than 104,000. In the UK, approximately 10,000 people are newly diagnosed each year.

Pancreatic cancer affects men and women equally with incidence increasing from the age of 45. The average age at diagnosis is 72.

The pancreas is an organ about six inches long and shaped like a thin pear lying on its side. The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body and the narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas is found deep inside the body, behind the stomach and in front of the spine.

Patient Information Booklets

What is pancreatic cancer and how is it diagnosed?

This booklet for patients and carers describes pancreatic cancer, its causes and symptoms. It gives detailed information on the diagnostic tests used and the stages of pancreatic cancer. It includes a section on what to ask your doctor, where to go for further information and a glossary to explain many of the terms used.

The pancreas has two main jobs in the body;

  • It contains exocrine glands which create enzymes which help to digest food
  • It contains endocrine glands which create hormones such as insulin and glucagon, which control blood sugars.

There are therefore two main types of pancreatic cancer. Tumours that affect the exocrine glands, and ones that affect the endocrine glands.

Exocrine tumours

Exocrine tumours make up the majority of all pancreatic cancers. The most common type of exocrine tumour is called pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) and comes from cells that line the ducts in pancreas that carry digestive juices into the intestine. There are other rarer kinds of exocrine tumours of the pancreas including adenosquamous carcinomas and undifferentiated carcinomas.

Neuroendocrine tumours

Neuroendocrine tumours (also called endocrine tumours) are less common and occur in the cells that produce hormones such as insulin. Some of these tumours produce hormones and are called functional tumours. They may not always be cancerous but can cause symptoms due to excessive hormone production or the effects of the tumour displacing or pushing on the surrounding tissues.  Non-functional tumours do not produce any hormones but are more likely to be cancerous.

The information provided by Pancreatic Cancer Action focuses on the most common type of pancreatic cancer- pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC).

The Information Standard Logo 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.

Sources and references for this information product will be supplied on request. Please contact us quoting the Information Product number below:

Information Product № PCA0011v1 Published 03/10/2019
Last Updated 28/02/2020 Next Review Due 03/10/2022