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Doctor discussing treatment options with patient who has pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer

About pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive form of cancer that develops in the cells of the pancreas. In 2019, an estimated 56,770 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas, according to the American Cancer Society. Each year, pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3 percent of all new cancer diagnoses and more than 8 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States.

The pancreas is a small but powerful organ that sits in the abdomen below the liver and behind the lower half of the stomach. The cells in the pancreas have two primary functions: Exocrine cells produce enzymes that help the body digest food, and endocrine glands produce hormones, including insulin, that help control blood sugar.

Exocrine cells, which make up most of the cells in the pancreas, are found in the glands and ducts of the organ. About 90 percent of all pancreatic cancers form in exocrine cells and are considered adenocarcinomas. Adenocarcinomas are tumors that form in mucus-secreting glands. Adenocarcinomas are also prevalent among lung, prostate, esophageal and colorectal cancers.

About 5 percent of all pancreatic cancers form in endocrine cells and are considered neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) or pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs). These types of pancreatic cancers are also called islet cell cancers, because endocrine cells often are found in clusters called islets. NETs are cancers that form in organs that produce hormones and may also be found in the gastrointestinal tract, lungs and adrenal glands.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) ranks pancreatic cancers as the 11th most common cancer in the United States. The risk of developing cancer of the pancreas increases significantly with age. According to the NCI:

  • 97.5 percent of all new pancreas cancer diagnoses are in people 45 years and older.
  • 89 percent of all new diagnoses are in people 55 and older.
  • 66.5 percent of all new cases are in people older than 65.

Men are at a slightly higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer than women.

Besides age, risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer include obesity, tobacco smoking, diabetes and chronic inflammation of the pancreas, a condition called pancreatitis. People with a family history of cancer of the pancreas or who have a hereditary cancer syndrome may be at a higher risk.