Diagnosis and Treatment of Pancreatic Cancer

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is an important organ found behind the stomach and intestines in front of the back bones. It is mostly above the kidneys. It is essential for proper digestion and also for the production of important hormones such as insulin.

How common is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death overall, according to the American Cancer Society. 48,960 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas during 2015, and 40,560 will die from the disease. This disease is unfortunately often asymptomatic when in its earliest stages. Symptoms due to this type of cancer often only occur when the cancer is no longer removable and may already have spread in the body. Only about 6% of all pancreatic cancer patients are alive 5 years following their diagnosis.

While pancreatic cancer is rare, a few high profile cases have given it public attention. In October 2011, Apple founder Steve Jobs died at age 56 after a seven-year battle with an unusual type of pancreatic cancer. 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 is thus often not diagnosed until it is in later stages; few treatment options exist.

Pancreatic cancer treatments

Today pancreatic cancer can be cured if it is found early enough and a patient can undergo aggressive surgery using a Whipple procedure (pancreatoduodenectomy) or a variant thereof. Recovery time from this procedure takes several weeks. Unfortunately the disease is rarely found at such an early stage. Only about 25% to 30% are cured by such a surgery even at the earliest stages.

Locally advanced pancreatic cancer cannot be operated upon for cure, but a combination of chemotherapy drugs and radiation can prolong survival out to about 18 to 20 months for many patients.

Metastatic or widespread pancreatic cancer is incurable as well, and can be rapidly fatal. Today combinations of chemotherapy drugs are benefiting about 25% of patients and can prolong survival by a few months. The treatment of this illness remains a subject of active research through clinical trials.


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Medically reviewed by Jay B. Zatzkin, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Medical Oncology


American Cancer Society


National Cancer Institute

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