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Pancreatic Cancer

  • Amy Scholten, MPH
Publication Type:


Pancreatic Cancer

(Cancer of the Pancreas)


Pancreatic cancer is the growth of cancer cells in the pancreas. The pancreas is a digestive organ. It makes digestive enzymes and hormones.

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Cancer happens when cells divide without control or order. These cells grow together to form a tumor. They can invade and damage nearby tissues. They can also spread to other parts of the body.

It is not clear what causes changes in the cells. It is likely a combination of genes and environment.

Risk Factors

Pancreatic cancer is more common in men and people aged 55 years old and older. Other things that raise the risk are:


Pancreatic cancer does not usually cause symptoms in the early stages. When symptoms occur, the cancer has often spread outside the pancreas.

Symptoms may be:

  • Weight loss without trying
  • Pain—in the upper belly, which may spread to the back
  • Dark urine (pee), tan stool (poop), loose stools, or stool that floats
  • Lack of hunger
  • Weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Itching
  • Jaundice—yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may order blood and urine tests, and check for hidden blood in the stool.

Imaging tests help confirm the diagnosis. They check the pancreas and surrounding structures and may include:

A biopsy may be done—a sample of pancreatic tissue will be taken and tested.

The exam and test results are used to diagnose the cancer. They also help determine staging. Pancreatic cancer is staged from 0 to 4. The lower the number the less the cancer has spread.


The goal is to remove the cancer, if possible, and to ease symptoms. Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of the cancer.

Surgery may be done to help treat the cancer. If the cancer has spread too far, surgery is sometimes also done to ease symptoms. Surgery may include:

  • Whipple procedure—to remove part of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, and some tissues around it
  • Total pancreatectomy—to remove the whole pancreas, part of the small intestine, part of the stomach, the bile duct, the gallbladder, spleen, and nearby lymph nodes
  • Distal pancreatectomy—to remove the body and tail of the pancreas

Other treatments may include:

  • External radiation therapy or internal radiation—to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It may be given:
    • After surgery—to lower the risk of cancer coming back
    • Before surgery—to shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove
    • For cancer that cannot be removed by surgery
    • To ease symptoms in people with advanced cancer
  • Chemotherapy by mouth, injection, or IV—to kill cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy—drugs that target cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy—drugs that help the body fight cancer. They are used when cancer starts growing again after chemotherapy.

Most times, pancreatic cancer is found at a later stage. This means that surgery may not be helpful. If surgery cannot be done, then chemotherapy and radiation may be given together. This may increase survival time.


The risk of pancreatic cancer may be lowered by:

  • Not smoking
  • Reaching and keeping a healthy weight
  • Eating a healthful, low fat diet
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Limiting alcohol to:
    • 2 drinks or less per day for men
    • 1 drink per day for women




  • General information about pancreatic cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
  • Pancreatic adenocarcinoma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
  • Pancreatic cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at:
  • Saluja A, Maitra A. Pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. Gastroenterology. 2019;156(7):1937-1940.
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This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.