Pancreatic Cancer Facts

What is the pancreas?

Your pancreas is small, only about six inches long, but it plays an important role in your digestive system. Located deep within the abdomen, the pancreas produces insulin to help regulate your blood sugar level and aids in breaking down the foods you eat.

What are pancreatic cysts and the different types?

The term “pancreatic cyst” functionally extends to a range of growths containing fluid, from the benign and to the potentially precancerous:
  • Retention cysts: Also known as “simple cysts,” these tend to be small and typically require no treatment.
  • Serous cystadenomas: The most common of benign pancreatic cysts, serous cystadenomas are small but tend to appear in cluster.
  • Mucinous cystic neoplasms: These cysts, which generally appear in women, have the highest probability of turning malignant at about 25 percent.
  • Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm: Typically affect older men and pose a risk for cancer if left untreated, IPMN’s are associated with pancreatitis and other ailments that target the pancreas.
  • Pseudocysts: Usually arising from pancreatitis, these sacs of fluid differ from “true” pancreatic cysts because they lack a lining of epithelial cells similar to the inner layer of the intestines. These cysts do not turn malignant, so a patient’s treatment plan typically depends upon the presence and severity of symptoms.

Symptoms of pancreatic cysts

Pancreatic cysts do not necessarily present symptoms. When they do, the issues can range from rather mild to extremely serious:
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Abnormal feelings of fullness
  • Jaundice

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer develops when cells in the pancreas begin to grow uncontrollably. There are two types of pancreatic cancer tumors, exocrine and endocrine. Exocrine tumors are more common, while endocrine tumors are rare and make up less than 5 percent of all pancreatic cancer.

What increases your risk of pancreatic cancer?

A risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of getting a disease. This could be a behavior, a health condition, a hereditary trait — anything that affects your chances of developing an illness.

Pancreatic cancer has several risk factors associated with it — some of which you change and others you cannot.

Risk factors you have control over include:
  • Smoking: According to the American Cancer Society, 20 to 30 percent of pancreatic cancer cases are thought to be brought on by smoking.
  • Obesity: Being overweight or obese boosts your chances of developing pancreatic cancer.
Risk factors you cannot control are:
  • Age: The older you get, the more likely you are to receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Nearly all cases occur in people over 45 years of age.
  • Race and gender: African-Americans and men have a somewhat higher chance of getting pancreatic cancer.
  • Inherited genetic syndromes: It is possible that pancreatic cancer runs in some families. Genetic syndromes like Lynch, Peutz-Jeghers and Von Hippel-Lindau can all cause pancreatic cancer. Abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes passed down from parent to child also increases your likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer. If you are high risk due to hereditary factors, there may be genetic testing options available to you. Talk to your doctor to assess your needs and evaluate the best course of action.
  • Certain illnesses: If you suffer from diabetes, chronic pancreatitis or cirrhosis of the liver, you may have a higher chance of getting pancreatic cancer.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

You might not exhibit symptoms of pancreatic cancer until it has advanced, so it is important to know your body and be vigilant about any changes you experience that cause alarm.

Some symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer are:

  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Itchy skin
  • Belly and back pain
  • Blood clots
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irregular stools