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Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic Cancer Overview

The pancreas is an organ in the upper abdomen located beneath the stomach and adjacent to the first portion of the small intestine, called the duodenum. The pancreas is composed of glands that are responsible for a wide variety of tasks. The glandular functions of the pancreas can be divided into the following two categories:

  • Exocrine: The exocrine glands secrete enzymes into ducts that eventually empty into the duodenum. These enzymes then help in the digestion of food as it moves through the intestines.
  • Endocrine: The endocrine glands secrete hormones, including insulin, into the bloodstream. Insulin is carried by the blood throughout the rest of the body to assist in the process of using sugar as an energy source. Insulin also controls the levels of sugar in the blood.

The pancreas can be divided into the following four anatomical sections:

  • Head -- The rightmost portion that lies adjacent to the duodenum
  • Uncinate process -- An extension of the head of the pancreas
  • Body -- The middle portion of the pancreas
  • Tail -- The leftmost portion of the pancreas that lies adjacent to the spleen

Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasia (IPMN) is a type of pancreatic cancer that is beginning to be recognized more frequently. This pancreatic cancer has a better prognosis than other types of pancreatic cancer. Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasia is usually diagnosed endoscopically (see Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis).

The most common type of pancreatic cancer arises from the exocrine glands and is called adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. The endocrine glands of the pancreas can give rise to a completely different type of cancer, referred to as pancreatic neuroendocrine carcinoma or islet cell tumor. This article only discusses issues related to the more common type of pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is among the most aggressive of all cancers. By the time that pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, many people already have disease that has spread to distant sites in the body (about 53%). Pancreatic cancer is also relatively resistant to medical treatment, and the only potentially curative treatment is surgery. In 2010, approximately 43,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and approximately 36,000 people died of this disease. These numbers reflect the challenge in treating pancreatic cancer and the relative lack of curative options.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/2/2015
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The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Pancreatic Cancer:

Pancreatic Cancer - Symptoms

What were the symptoms of your pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic Cancer - Prognosis

What is your pancreatic cancer prognosis?

Pancreatic Cancer - Effective Treatments

What kinds of treatments have been effective for your pancreatic cancer?

Learn about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Pancreatic Cancer

Author: John P. Cunha, DO
Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

In October 2011, Apple founder Steve Jobs died at age 56 after a seven-year battle with pancreatic cancer, and as a result, patients are asking me about this disease. Jobs announced he had pancreatic cancer in 2004, battled the disease for years, and resigned as CEO of Apple in August 2011. Actor Patrick Swayze died from pancreatic cancer in September 2009. While pancreatic cancer is not one of the most common forms of cancer, it can be considered one of the most deadly because it is aggressive, spreads rapidly and thus often not diagnosed until it is in later stages, and few treatment options exist.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death overall, according to the American Cancer Society. About 44,000 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas during 2011, and 37,000 will die from the disease.

One of my first patients as an intern following my graduation from medical school was a 64-year-old man diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. He was admitted to the hospital suffering from weakness and dehydrationand was unable to hold down solid foods or liquids.

He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about six months earlier. His doctors at the time recommended surgery to remove the malignant tumor in his pancreas. This surgery is known as a Whipple procedure (pancreatoduodenectomy); this is still the most common procedure for surgically treating pancreatic cancer. This is a radical surgical procedure which involves removing the malignant part of the pancreas and rerouting the stomach and the bile ducts from the liver to the small intestine. Recovery time for this procedure is several weeks, and there can be multiple complications. Because of the risks, the patient elected not to have the surgery.

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Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of death among both men and women, comprising 6% of all cancer-related deaths.

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