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What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas — an organ in your abdomen that lies horizontally behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas secretes enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help regulate the metabolism of sugars.
Pancreatic cancer often has a poor prognosis, even when diagnosed early. Pancreatic cancer typically spreads rapidly and is seldom detected in its early stages, which is a major reason why it’s a leading cause of cancer death. Signs and symptoms may not appear until pancreatic cancer is quite advanced and surgical removal isn’t possible.
Understanding your pancreas
Your pancreas is about 6 inches (15 centimeters) long and looks something like a pear lying on its side. The pancreas is a crucial part of your digestive system. It secretes hormones, including insulin, to help your body process sugar. And it produces digestive juices to help your body digest food.
How pancreatic cancer forms
Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in your pancreas develop genetic mutations. These mutations cause the cells to grow uncontrollably and to continue living after normal cells would die. These accumulating cells can form a tumor.
Types of pancreatic cancer
The types of cells involved in a pancreatic cancer help determine the best treatment. Types of pancreatic cancer include:
- Cancer that forms in the pancreas ducts (adenocarcinoma). Cells that line the ducts of the pancreas help produce digestive juices. The majority of pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas. Sometimes these cancers are called exocrine tumors.
- Cancer that forms in the hormone-producing cells. Cancer that forms in the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas is called endocrine cancer. Endocrine cancers of the pancreas are very rare.
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don’t occur until the disease is advanced. When signs and symptoms do appear, they may include:
- Upper abdominal pain that may radiate to your back
- Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Blood clots