Pancreatic Cancer: Everything You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed by Kelsey Powell, MS, Medical Sciences

Photo Courtesy: Ariel Skelley/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The pancreas is a bodily organ that few people think about. In fact, most people don’t even know what it does. Despite this, pancreatic cancer is among the deadliest types of cancer, which is why it's extremely important to know and recognize the typical signs and symptoms of this disease.

What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

As the name suggests, pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that first develops in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ located in the right side of the abdomen behind the lower part of the stomach. This organ’s purpose is to secrete enzymes that help your body digest food. It also secretes hormones that are responsible for regulating your blood glucose levels.

Pancreatic cancer is often associated with a very poor prognosis because it is rarely detected in its early stages and the signs and symptoms of the disease aren’t always apparent until it’s too late. Additionally, it is a very aggressive form of cancer that spreads rapidly, making it difficult to treat. Unfortunately, the incidences of pancreatic cancer continues to rise.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

There are many types of pancreatic cancer, but the majority of cases can be categorized into two main types. Based on the type of cells from which the cancer originates, most patients exhibit one of these types of pancreatic cancers:

Exocrine (Nonendocrine) Pancreatic Cancer: This type of pancreatic cancer originates from the exocrine cells that form the exocrine gland and pancreatic ducts. The exocrine gland produces the enzymes that help break down food, whereas the pancreatic ducts carry these enzymatic juices to the common bile duct. There are various types of exocrine pancreatic cancer. The most common type is adenocarcinoma or ductal carcinoma, which affects the pancreatic ducts. Other more rare types of exocrine pancreatic cancer include squamous cell carcinoma, adenosquamous carcinoma, and colloid carcinoma.

Neuroendocrine Pancreatic Cancer/Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors (PanNETs): This type of pancreatic cancer is less common and occurs when tumors develop from the cells of the pancreatic endocrine gland, which is responsible for producing and secreting the hormones that regulate blood glucose levels (i.e. glucagon and insulin).