What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that develops within the  pancreas, the gland about six inches long that is responsible for making  hormones, including the enzymes responsible for the digestion of food and  control of blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer develops when cells within the pancreas  begin to grow out of control. It may spread, or metastasize, to nearby lymph  nodes and organs such as the liver and lungs.


The pancreas has three sections:

  • Head: Part  of the pancreas adjacent to the small bowel and liver ducts
  • Body: Middle  of the pancreas
  • Tail: End of  the pancreas near the spleen

About 90 percent or more of pancreatic cancer develops in  the head of the pancreas.

Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors

Risk factors affect the chance of developing pancreatic  cancer. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that someone will get  cancer.

There are different kinds of risk factors, and many people  with risk factors never develop pancreatic cancer. Risk factors for pancreatic  cancer may include:

  • Smoking. Smoking tobacco is generally the single largest risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes. People with long-standing diabetes are at a higher risk for pancreatic cancer.
  • Family history. Having a family member with pancreatic cancer or other hereditary conditions may increase the risk of developing the disease. Also, a family member with breast or colon cancer may increase someone's risk. Penn’s risk evaluation programs can help people determine their risk of developing cancer.
  • Inflammation of the pancreas. People who have chronic pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, for a long period of time may be at an increased. risk. Inflammation is often linked to smoking and excessive use of alcohol.
  • Obesity. Studies show people who are overweight or obese may be at an increased risk for developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Age. Most people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are over age 65.

Pancreatic Cancer Prevention

  • Quit smoking. Quitting smoking or stopping the use of chewing tobacco can decrease the risk of developing cancer.
  • Control weight. Maintaining a healthy weight with diet and exercise can help prevent cancer. 
  • Avoid alcohol.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Because the early stages of pancreatic cancer do not cause  symptoms, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed at a later stage, when treatment  options are limited.

During the later stages of pancreatic cancer, the follow  symptoms may be present:

  • Dark urine, pale stools and jaundice (skin and whites  of eyes have a yellowish tint)
  • Weight loss without dieting
  • Loss of appetite, or feeling of fullness
  • Pain in the upper area of the stomach and back
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in the middle of the back that doesn’t go away
  • Depression

Information on this page provided by Penn Medicine