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What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in your pancreas, an organ that aids digestion by breaking down food, and producing hormones that help manage your blood sugar and help your body store and use energy from food. Cancer starts when abnormal cells in the pancreas grow and divide out of control and form a tumor. For reasons that are still being explored by the scientific community, new cells can grow within the pancreas before the body needs them, or old cells might live longer than they should.

The resulting excess cells can form a tissue mass, or tumor. A tumor in the pancreas can be either benign or malignant. A benign tumor typically does not spread beyond the pancreas or invade other tissues, and usually will not grow back after removal. A pancreatic cyst, or a benign buildup of fluid that may eventually become cancerous, can also develop. Malignant pancreatic tumors can spread to and damage other tissues and organs throughout the body, such as the lymph nodes, liver, peritoneum and lungs. Although a malignant tumor can sometimes be removed, it can potentially grow back.

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Types of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancers can be categorized by the type of cell they originate in — either exocrine or neuroendocrine (endocrine). Which type of pancreatic cancer it is is based on which type of cell the tumors originate in. 

Pancreatic Exocrine Tumors

  • Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma. This is the most common type of pancreatic cancer (it accounts for about 90% of all pancreatic cancer cases) and starts in the cells lining the pancreatic duct, which make enzymes that aid in digestion.
  • Acinar cell carcinoma (ACC). This is a very rare form of pancreatic cancer, and this occurs when tumors cause the pancreas to create too much lipase.
  • Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm (IPMN). This is a tumor that grows from the main pancreatic duct or from side branches of the duct. While an IPMN may be first diagnosed as benign, it has a chance of becoming cancer. 
  • Mucinous cystic neoplasm (MCN). These are rare, cancerous tumors that are only found in one part of the pancreas, usually the tail. MCNs are mostly found in women.

Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors (PNETs)

PNETs, also called islet cell cancers, occur in the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas, and are very rare.

National Pancreas Foundation Centers of Excellence

National Pancreas Foundation Centers of Excellence are top-tier healthcare facilities specializing in the comprehensive treatment of pancreatic cancer. The approach prioritizes holistic patient care, aiming for optimal outcomes and enhanced quality of life. Moffitt is proud to be recognized as a National Pancreas Foundation Centers of Excellence.

Causes & risk factors of pancreatic cancer

Research shows that pancreatic cancer is caused by mutations, or changes, in a cell’s DNA. What exactly triggers these cellular changes is unclear. While the scientific community still has much to learn about the root causes of pancreatic cancer, researchers have identified several risk factors.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • Advanced age, as most patients are older than 60
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • A family history pancreatic cancer
  • Certain genetic syndromes, including Lynch syndrome and BRCA2 gene mutation

Pancreatic cancer is a rare condition, and having one or more of these risk factors does not mean that a diagnosis is inevitable. On the other hand, some patients with pancreatic cancer don’t have any known risk factors. Individuals who have multiple risk factors should be mindful of changes in their health and watch for potential pancreatic cancer symptoms.

Pancreas highlighted in orange

Pancreatic cancer symptoms

Pancreatic cancer typically does not present obvious symptoms in its early stages. As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite or a feeling of fullness
  • Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Light-colored stools
  • Abdominal pain that travels toward the spine
  • Fatigue
  • Worsening of existing diabetes or a new diabetes diagnosis
  • Itchy skin
  • Blood clots
  • Indigestion, diarrhea and other digestive problems

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can also vary based on what type of pancreatic cancer it is, its location within the pancreas, and what stage it is. 

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer  

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose as symptoms are often vague or subtle. To confirm a suspected case, a physician may perform one or more of the following tests:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan. An imaging technique that produces pictures of the chest, stomach and pelvic area to identify masses in the pancreas and nearby organs
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). A procedure that involves passing a thin, flexible ultrasound device down the esophagus and into the abdomen to obtain detailed images of the pancreas
  • Blood tests. Bloodwork taken to screen for certain proteins (CA19-9) produced by pancreatic cancer cells or to gauge liver function (liver function tests and bilirubin)
  • Biopsy. A small amount of tissue is taken from the pancreas, usually through an endoscopic procedure or fine-needle aspiration (FNA)

Once a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is confirmed, the next step is to stage the cancer and develop an appropriate course of treatment.

Pancreatic cancer stages

Cancer staging is performed to determine the extent of the cancer, whether it has metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body, and if so, how far. This information plays a crucial role in determining a patient’s prognosis and treatment plan.  

Multiple factors are taken into account when staging cancer, including whether or not the tumor is resectable (surgically removable) and what nearby structures are affected. The following criteria are used to stage pancreatic cancer from 1 through 4, with 4 being the most advanced:  

  • Stage 1A. Resectable tumors that are 2 centimeters or smaller and have not spread beyond the pancreas
  • Stage 1B. Resectable tumors that are larger than 2 centimeters and have not spread beyond the pancreas
  • Stage 2A. Potentially resectable tumors that extend directly outside of the pancreas but have not reached surrounding lymph nodes or major arteries
  • Stage 2B. Potentially resectable tumors that have reached surrounding lymph nodes but not major arteries
  • Stage 3. Unresectable tumors that have reached major arteries
  • Stage 4. Unresectable tumors that have spread to other organs

Around half of all pancreatic cancers are diagnosed in stage 4. While stage 4 pancreatic cancer is not yet considered curative, there are multiple treatment options available to help reduce symptoms, slow the cancer’s progression and enhance quality of life.

Greg's Story with Pancreatic Cancer

"Life goes on and I'm glad I'm part of it."

Greg, Pancreatic Cancer Survivor

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Moffitt Cancer Center’s approach to treating pancreatic cancer

Within Moffitt Cancer Center’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program, we take a multispecialty approach to pancreatic cancer care. In a single location, our patients have access to a comprehensive range of treatments provided by a collaborative team of highly experienced and specialized professionals, including:

  • Board-certified surgeons
  • Endocrinologists
  • Medical oncologists
  • Radiation oncologists
  • Radiologists
  • Pathologists

These experts meet weekly as a tumor board to review patient cases and work together to deliver comprehensive, individualized care. As a result, each Moffitt patient receives the benefit of having multiple expert opinions at each phase of his or her evaluation and treatment. Additionally, our compassionate oncology nurses, social workers, board certified supportive care physicians and dietitians provide a full range of comprehensive care to our patients.

As the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center based in Florida, Moffitt continues to blaze new trails that advance cancer research. In addition to our extensive portfolio of clinical trials, Moffitt administers several molecular therapy, immunotherapy and chemotherapy drugs that are not readily available elsewhere, allowing us to provide our patients with opportunities to be among the first to receive highly advanced therapies

To learn more about Moffitt’s comprehensive pancreatic cancer services, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online.

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Give now to support the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program. For more information, call toll-free 1-800-456-3434, ext. 1403.