Pancreatic cancer - what is it?

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.

There are two main types of pancreatic cancer

Exocrine tumours
These make up the vast majority of all pancreatic cancers (around 95%) 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 also known as neuroendocrine tumours, (NETS) and are much less common. The neuroendocrine tumours we discuss here are found in the pancreas and are called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (PNETS).

These are tumours that develop in our endocrine glands that release hormones (which regulate some processes in our bodies), these are then circulated around the body.

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 holds 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.

Pancreatic Endocrine Tumours

In the pancreas, there are a group of cells, which are called the Islets of Langerhans, that produce hormones including insulin, glucagon and somatostatin which are involved in the control of sugar in the blood. PNETS are tumours found in these cells so are sometimes referred to as islet cell tumours.

There are two types:

  1. Non-functional (non-secretory) PNETS. These tend to be cancerous, and DO NOT produce hormones.
  2. Functional (secretory) PNETS. These tumours are less likely to be cancerous. These DO produce hormones such as insulin, glucagon to control blood sugar levels. Although they are less likely to be cancerous, they can produce symptoms due to the excessive production of hormones or the effects of the tumour displacing and pushing the surrounding tissue. 

For more detailed information on the types of neuroendocrine pancreatic cancers, and their symptoms click here.

What is cancer?

Find out more

What is the pancreas?

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Does pancreatic cancer run in families?

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Information Product No. PCA0011v1 | Published: 03/01/2014 | Last Updated: 22/05/2019 | Next Review Due: 03/01/2017