What is the pancreas?

Pancreatic Cancer Action
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 is an essential organ that both men and women have. It is responsible for producing enzymes that help break down your food and hormones which control your blood sugar levels.

The Pancreas

It is about 6 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 your body, behind the stomach and in front of the spine.

The location of the pancreas

What does the pancreas do?

It has two main jobs in the body, it makes:

  • Enzymes – these help to digest (break down) foods.
  • Hormones – such as insulin and glucagon, which control blood sugar levels.

A tube called the pancreatic duct connects the pancreas to the first part of the small intestine, known as the duodenum. Digestive enzymes pass through this tube to help break down food.

Another tube, called the common bile duct, passes through the head of the pancreas. This tube carries bile – a substance that helps to digest fats – from the liver and gall bladder to the small intestine. The bile duct may get blocked when a pancreatic tumour invades it. This causes jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin and dark urine).

The pancreas contains two types of glands

  • Exocrine glands create the enzymes which help digest (break down) foods.
  • Endocrine glands create the hormones such as insulin and glucagon, which control blood sugars.
Detail diagram of the pancreas

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Information Product № PCA0011v3 Published 03/10/2019
Last Updated 12/07/2022 Next Review Due 03/10/2022