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What is a pancreas?
The pancreas is a gland, about six inches long, located in the abdomen. It is shaped like a flat pear and is surrounded by the stomach, small intestine, liver, spleen and gallbladder. The wide end of the pancreas on the right side of the body is called the head. The middle sections are the neck and body.
The thin end of the pancreas on the left side of the body is called the tail. The uncinate process is the part of the gland that bends backwards and underneath the head of the pancreas. Two very important blood vessels, the superior mesenteric artery and superior mesenteric vein, cross behind the neck of the pancreas and in front of the uncinate process. The pancreas is both an exocrine gland and endocrine gland and has two main functions – digestion and blood sugar regulation.
What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer begins when abnormal cells within the pancreas grow out of control and form a tumor. The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen that lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine, with two main functions: digestion and blood sugar regulation.
More than 95 percent of pancreatic cancers are classified as exocrine tumors. These tumors start in the exocrine cells that make pancreatic enzymes that help in digestion. Within this category, the vast majority of tumors are adenocarcinomas.
Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (pancreatic NETs or PNETs) account for less than 5 percent of all pancreatic tumors. They may be benign or malignant and tend to grow slower than exocrine tumors.
Exocrine cells of the pancreas produce enzymes that help with digestion. When food enters the stomach, exocrine cells release the pancreatic enzymes into a system of small ducts that lead to the main pancreatic duct. The pancreatic duct runs the length of the pancreas and carries pancreatic enzymes and other secretions, collectively called pancreatic juice.
The main pancreatic duct connects with the common bile duct, which carries bile from the gallbladder, and together they connect with the duodenum at a point called the ampulla of Vater. Here, bile and pancreatic enzymes enter the duodenum to aid with the digestion of fats, carbohydrates and proteins.
Blood Sugar Regulation
The endocrine cells of the pancreas produce hormones. Hormones are substances that control or regulate specific functions in the body. They are usually made in one part of the body and carried through the blood to take action on another part of the body. The two main pancreatic hormones are insulin and glucagon. Islet cells are endocrine cells within the pancreas that produce and secrete insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. Insulin lowers blood sugar levels while glucagon raises blood sugar levels. Together, these two main hormones work to maintain the proper level of sugar in the blood.
Pancreatic cancer statistics
Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate among all major cancers. In nearly every country, pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of all major cancers. Source
Every day, more than 1,257 people worldwide will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and an estimated 1,184 will die from the disease. Source
It is estimated that in 2025, 557,688 cases will be diagnosed globally. Source
How is pancreatic cancer treated?
Treatment for pancreatic cancer is dependent on how advanced the cancer is and a patient’s overall health. If possible, surgeons will remove the cancer; the most common operation is the Whipple procedure (surgery to remove all or part of the pancreas and other organs). Surgery is usually followed up with chemotherapy.
For metastatic pancreatic cancer (spread to other parts of the body) treatment may include chemotherapy and occasionally radiotherapy too. A patient may also be offered treatment to relieve symptoms and the opportunity to join a clinical trial.
What to do if you’re concerned?
All of the symptoms and risk factors featured on this website can have multiple other causes and the symptoms you are experiencing may well be a sign of something else.
BUT if you’ve regularly been experiencing one or more of the symptoms mentioned on this website that are persistent, worsening, and not normal for you, do not ignore them, speak to your healthcare provider as soon as you can, and reference pancreatic cancer. If a friend or member of your family is having any of these symptoms, tell them to do the same.
If pancreatic cancer is found early, it is more treatable so visiting your doctor could save your life! Remember, it’s about time.
You can also find information on pancreatic cancer and support groups in your area, by contacting coalition members near you.