Types of Pancreatic Cancer

What is Pancreatic Cancer:

Cancer of the pancreas is the malignant growth of abnormal cells that arise in the pancreas. The uncontrollable multiplication of these cells forms a mass, or tumor, and is a dire threat to healthy tissue and bodily function. Depending on where the tumors are in the pancreas, they can interfere with the normal tasks of the pancreas, resulting in diabetes or serious digestive problems.

Pancreatic cancer is not one disease – in fact, as many as twenty different tumors have been grouped under the term, “cancer of the pancreas” – and prognoses and treatment options vary based on the specific tumor found, its stage, and its location (pancreatic cancer can manifest in the head, body or tail of the pancreas).  Primarily, cancer of the pancreas can be broadly sub-grouped into exocrine tumors and endocrine tumors.  

  • Exocrine Tumors. More than 95% of pancreatic cancers are classified as varying types of exocrine tumors. These tumors begin to form in the exocrine cells that create the pancreatic enzymes that are part of the digestion process. In the majority of exocrine tumors (called adenocarcinomas tumors), the cancer grows in the cells lining the pancreatic duct.
  • Endocrine Tumors. Endocrine tumors are very uncommon and account for roughly 5% of all pancreatic cancer cases. Endocrine tumors form in the cells that create insulin and glucagon. They can affect the body’s blood sugar levels; which often means the symptoms of endocrine pancreatic tumors are usually quite pronounced. A person suffering from an endocrine pancreatic tumor can experience symptoms that include severe weakness, dizziness, loss of energy, pronounced bowel distress, diabetes and extreme highs and lows in blood sugar.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that roughly 46,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed each year in America. It is the third leading cause of American cancer deaths each year.

For a much more detailed explanation of the many forms of pancreatic cancer, please visit the website of the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center, which is supported in part by the Rolfe Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.

Stages of Pancreatic Cancer:

Staging cancer is a standardized method to classify a tumor based on its location, its size, and its spread. Staging a tumor allows doctors to evaluate a patient’s prognosis and prescribe an appropriate course of action.  

Cancers found in their early stages usually have more surgical options than those found in late stages (some of which are unresectable – meaning they cannot be removed completely through surgery; though other treatment options exist). Generally, early stage cancers also have more favorable prognoses.

  • Stage 1A: Tumor is limited to the pancreas and measures 2 centimeters (cm) or less at its largest point.
  • Stage 1B:  Tumor is limited to the pancreas and measures greater than 2 cm.
  • Stage 2A: Tumor extends directly beyond the pancreas but does not involve the major local arteries (celiac axis and superior mesenteric artery) or local lymph nodes. 
  • Stage 2B: Tumor may or may not extend beyond the pancreas but does not involve the major local arteries. Local lymph nodes are involved.
  • Stage 3: Tumor involves major local arteries. Local lymph nodes may or may not be involved.
  • Stage 4: Primary tumor may be any size. Disease has metastasized (spread) to another part of the body, including the liver, abdominal wall, lungs and/or distant lymph nodes.