Step One: Learn The Facts

With so much content at our fingertips, quick access to clear and accurate information is key.

It’s important to understand the pancreas and its function, and how pancreatic cancer impacts your body. By learning these facts, you’re able to better advocate for yourself and determine next steps.


What is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is a gland about six inches long that is nestled deep in the abdomen. It is shaped like a flat pear, and is surrounded by the stomach, liver, small intestine, spleen and gallbladder. It is both an exocrine and endocrine gland that plays a vital part in the body’s digestive system, and in the body’s production of insulin and glucagon, which helps regulate and control blood sugar levels (glucose).

If you want to visualize the position of the pancreas, the physicians at Johns Hopkins Hospital recommend the following practice: touch your right thumb and pinkie fingers together, keeping the other three fingers pressed together and straight. Then, place your hand in the center of your belly just below your lower ribs, with your fingers pointing to your left. Your hand will be the approximate shape, and at the approximate level of your pancreas.

Because of its location, tumors that develop in the pancreas are rarely able to be felt by pressing on the abdomen. This explains why most symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer do not appear until the tumor has grown large enough to interfere with the function of the pancreas, or other nearby organs such as the stomach, duodenum, liver, or gallbladder.

What Does the Pancreas Do?

As an endocrine gland, the pancreas produces hormones, namely insulin and glucagon. Insulin is a hormone that lowers blood sugar levels, while glucagon raises them. The pancreas secretes these hormones into the bloodstream, and they work together to maintain the body’s proper blood sugar levels.

The bulk of the pancreas is made up of exocrine cells that make enzymes, or digestive juices, which are secreted into the small intestine, and helps further digest food once it has left the stomach. It’s a process that is crucial to the body’s proper functions. Put very simply: in regards to its exocrine function, a healthy pancreas produces the right chemicals at the right times in the right quantities, and helps us properly digest the food we eat. 

For a much more thorough explanation of the pancreas and its functions, please visit the Pathology Department at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is the malignant growth of abnormal cells that form in the pancreas. Multiplication of these cells forms a mass, or tumor, and can threaten healthy tissue and bodily function. Depending on its location, a tumor can interfere with the normal tasks of the pancreas, and could cause diabetes or serious digestive problems. Prognosis and treatment for pancreatic tumors vary based on its makeup, stage and location.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that roughly 58,000 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.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer are identified as either exocrine or 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.

Hands holding

Diagnosis & Stages

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, such as the liver, abdominal wall, lungs and/or distant lymph nodes.