WellSpan Home

Health Library

Pancreatic Cancer: Introduction

What is cancer?

Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and die when your body does not need them any longer.

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't need them. In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. If cancer cells are in the body long enough, they can grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can even spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in your pancreas. In this cancer, normal cells in the pancreas undergo a series of changes. This can eventually lead to excess cell growth and the formation of tumors.

Understanding the pancreas

The pancreas is an organ behind the stomach and in front of the spine. It’s about 6 inches long. One end is wide and is called the head. The middle is called the body. The narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas is made up of two main types of cells.

The exocrine pancreas is made up of cells that make digestive juices. These help your body break down foods. Most pancreatic cancers start in this part of the pancreas. Pancreatic juices contain chemicals called enzymes that help you digest food. The pancreas releases these juices when during meals. The juices enter your intestine through tubes called ducts. The main pancreatic duct is at the head of the pancreas. It joins the common bile duct which comes from the liver and gallbladder. The juices from the pancreas mix with other substances from the liver and gallbladder. The merged ducts open into the first part of the small intestine (duodenum). In the duodenum, the juices help break down fats, sugars, and proteins from the food you eat.

The endocrine pancreas makes hormones that are released into the blood. They help control how your body works. The pancreatic endocrine cells are arranged in small clumps called islets of Langerhans. They make many hormones, including insulin and glucagon. These hormones help your body use and store the energy created from the food you eat. A small number of all pancreatic cancers start in endocrine cells.

What are the types of cancer in the pancreas?

Here’s an overview of the types of cancer that can start in the pancreas:

  • Adenocarcinomas. These exocrine cancers start in cells with glandular properties, or cells that secrete. The majority (more than 95%) of pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas. This is usually what’s meant by the term pancreatic cancer.

  • Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs). These tumors, also known as islet cell tumors, start in endocrine cells in the pancreas. There are many types of pancreatic NETs. They can be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant).

Other types of cancer that can start in the pancreas are much less common. They include acinar cell carcinomas, adenosquamous carcinomas, and squamous cell carcinomas. They also include signet ring cell carcinomas and giant cell tumors.

How pancreatic cancer grows and spreads

Pancreatic cancer often grows within the pancreas for a long time before it causes any symptoms. If the cancer grows outside the pancreas, it often goes into the nearby bile ducts and lymph nodes in your belly (abdomen). In some cases, it spreads to other nearby areas. Pancreatic cancer may also spread to distant parts of the body. These can include your liver or lungs.

When pancreatic cancer spreads to another part of the body, it’s not considered a new cancer. For instance, if it spreads to your liver, it’s not considered liver cancer. It’s called metastatic pancreatic cancer. It’s still treated like pancreatic cancer.

Talk with your healthcare provider

If you have questions about pancreatic cancer, talk with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can help you understand more about this cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer: Introduction - WellSpan Health

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Last Review Date: 2016-07-01T00:00:00
Last Modified Date: 2016-07-21T00:00:00
Posting Date: 2008-11-30T00:00:00
Published Date: 2016-07-21T00:00:00
Last Review Date: 2007-03-30T00:00:00
© 2016 WellSpan Health. All Rights Reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

I would like to:

Are you sure you would like to cancel?

All information will be lost.

Yes No ×

About the provider search

This search will provide you with WellSpan Medical Group and Northern Lancaster County (Ephrata) Medical Group primary care physicians and specialists. If we don’t have a WellSpan Medical Group physician to meet your criteria, the search will expand to include community physicians who partner with WellSpan Medical Group physicians through the WellSpan Provider Network or provide care to patients on the Medical Staffs of WellSpan’s Hospitals.

×

Schedule Your Next Appointment Online with MyWellSpan

Use your MyWellSpan patient portal any time to view available appointments, and pick the date and time that best suits your schedule.

Go to MyWellSpan

New to this practice?

If you don't have a WellSpan primary care provider and would like to schedule a new patient appointment with a provider who is accepting patients, just log into your MyWellSpan account, and go to the Appointment Center section. As you progress through the scheduling process, you will be able to see the offices that are accepting new patients in relation to your zip code. If you are not enrolled in MyWellSpan, go to https://my.wellspan.org, call 1-866-638-1842 or speak with a member of the staff at a participating facility to sign up. New patient scheduling not available at all practices/programs.

Already a patient at this practice?

If you already have a relationship with a WellSpan practice, simply log into your account, and go to the Appointment Center section. As you progress through the scheduling process, you will be able to schedule an appointment with any provider or practice that already counts you as a patient. Online scheduling varies by practice/program.

×