What is Pancreatic Cancer?
What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is a cancer that forms in certain cells of the pancreas.
The pancreas is an essential organ in the body, which is important for digesting food and managing use of sugar for energy after digestion.
In Europe, pancreatic cancer is the seventh most common cancer with more than 100,000 European citizens diagnosed every year. However, it is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in Europe, behind only lung and colorectal cancer.1
The survival rate is much higher when pancreatic cancer is found at an earlier stage, hasn’t spread outside the pancreas, and surgery is possible. However, because it can be difficult to detect in the early stages, it is often diagnosed at a late stage: at least 85% of new diagnoses are for late stage / metastatic disease (when the has spread to somewhere else in the body).2, 3
While looking at survival statistics around pancreatic cancer can be scary, it is important to remember that statistical numbers are based on large numbers of people; each individual patient is different and what may apply to one patient may be completely different for another. Also bear in mind that because new treatments continue to be developed, people now being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer may have a better outlook than the statistics have shown in the past.
About the pancreas and types of pancreatic cancer
The pancreas is a long, flat gland that lies in the abdomen behind the stomach. The different sections are called the head, body and tail of the pancreas.
The pancreas has two very important functions, called exocrine and endocrine functions.
1. Exocrine function
The majority of the pancreas (around 85%) is made up of the exocrine portion, which produces ‘juices’ made of enzymes that digest all of the food’s components you eat so the body can use them.
2. Endocrine function
There are small groups of cells in the pancreas, in clusters called islets. They make hormones like insulin and glucagon, which mainly regulate your body’s blood sugar, but also have other digestive functions.
The vast majority (around 93%) of pancreatic cancers arise from the exocrine parts of the pancreas.4 Within this category, most tumours are ‘adenocarcinomas’, which means a cancer which originated in glandular cells. This form of cancer is often known as pancreatic cancer ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC).
Tumours that begin in the endocrine parts of the pancreas are known as pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (or pancreatic NETs or PNETs or ‘islet cell tumours’). They account for less than 5% of all pancreatic tumours.4
Please note: When we refer to ‘pancreatic cancer’ here, we are referring to PDAC as it is the most prevalent form.
An anatomical illustration showing the different parts of the colon and the small intestine.
1. Hawksworth G, Hales G, Martinez M et al. Pancreatic cancer trends in Europe: epidemiology and risk factors. Medical Studies/Studia Medyczne 2019; 35 (2): 164–171 DOI: https://doi.org/10.5114/ms.2019.86336
2. Mizrahi JD, Surana R, Valle JW, et al. Pancreatic cancer. Lancet. 2020;395:2008–2020.
3. Seigel RL, Miller KD, Fuchs HE, et al. Cancer Statistics 2021. CA Cancer J Clin. 2021;71:7–33
4. Pancan, 2021. Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Available online: https://www.pancan.org/section-facing-pancreatic-cancer/learn-about-pan-cancer/types-of-pancreatic-cancer