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Pancreatic Cancer Overview

The pancreas is a gland located in the lower stomach, near the liver, gall bladder, spleen, and intestines. The pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which regulates blood sugar, and it also secretes enzymes that help to break down and digest food.

The pancreas is about 6 inches in length, and has a shape like a flat pear, with a head, body, and tail.

Pancreatic cancer normally begins within the ducts that carry the pancreatic enzymes and juices out to the small intestine and the rest of the body. This condition is called adenocarcinoma. Much less often, approximately 5% of the time, pancreatic cancer will start in the hormone-producing cells within the pancreas. This is called islet cell cancer.


Pancreatic cancer spreads quickly and is usually not diagnosed in its early stages, because symptoms usually do not appear until later. Even in its advanced stages, pancreatic cancer remains difficult to diagnose, because the symptoms of pancreatic cancer can look like those of many other diseases.

If pancreatic cancer is caught early, the tumor may be removed by surgery and the disease may be controlled. After the cancer has spread, the prognosis is generally not favorable. The focus in later stages of pancreatic cancer will be on alleviating pain and improving the patient’s quality of life.


Stage 1. In Stage 1 of pancreatic cancer, the cancer cells have not spread beyond the pancreas itself. If the tumor is smaller than 2 centimeters, this is known as Stage 1A. If the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters, it is known as Stage 1B. At both Stages 1A and 1B, pancreatic cancer can often be successfully treated through surgeryor through a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.

Stage 2. At Stage 2, the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to nearby organs and possibly to the lymph nodes. Treatment at this stage normally involves radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and/or surgery.

Stage 3. At Stage 3, cancer cells have spread to major blood vessels and possibly to the lymph nodes. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and palliative surgery may all be indicated at this stage.

Stage 4. At this stage, the cancer has spread to distant organs in the body, such as the lungs and abdominal lining. Chemotherapy, palliative surgery, nerve blocks, and other treatments for pain may be indicated.


Mayo Clinic Staff. 2010. “Pancreatic Cancer: Definition.” (Online)

National Institutes of Health. 2001. “What You Need to Know About Cancers of the Pancreas.” (Online booklet)

A.P. John Institute for Cancer Research. 2009. “Pancreatic Cancer.” (Online)

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