Pancreatic cancer is a cancer that begins in the pancreas. The most common type of pancreatic cancer is called ductal adenocarcinoma. There are more rare types of pancreatic cancer but most cases, over 90%, are adenocarcinomas. Adenocarcinomas of the pancreas most often start in the ducts of the pancreas but can also start in the small sacs found at the end of pancreatic ducts called acini. The acini make multiple types of enzymes that are released into the ducts and are then passed into the small intestine to aid in digestion.

The average person in the United States has a lifetime risk for pancreatic cancer that is 1.5%. Men have a slightly higher risk than women. Ninety percent of the cases are diagnosed after the age of 55. 10% of Pancreatic Cancer is hereditary in nature.

General Risk Factors

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Exposure to certain chemicals (pesticides, dyes, and chemicals that may be used in metal refining)
  • Chronic pancreatitis (long-term inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Cirrhosis (condition where scar tissue has replaced damaged liver tissue)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Helicobacter pylori (a bacterium that can cause stomach inflammation and ulcers)

As with the vast majority of cancers, there is no confirmed way to completely prevent the development of pancreatic cancer. Eating a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables and exercising in order to maintain a healthy weight are general good health habits.

Symptoms and Screening Methods

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include yellowing of the skin and eyes, darkening of the urine, itching, clay-colored stool, upper abdominal or upper back pain, blood clots, indigestion, floating stools with a bad odor and unusual color, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, chills, fever, and unexplained weight loss. Many of these symptoms can be due to the obstruction of the bile duct, which often occurs as pancreatic cancer develops. Bile (a liquid released by the liver that helps the body digest fats) moves from the liver to the gallbladder and small intestine through the bile duct.

In the United States, there is no standard or routine screening test for pancreatic cancer in the general population. If your doctor considers you to be at a higher risk than the average person for pancreatic cancer due to any of the risk factors mentioned above, including a hereditary cancer syndrome, or if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, he or she may recommend that you undergo certain screening tests, which can include an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) or a MRI/magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP). During an EUS a doctor can use an endoscope, a small lighted tube with a camera on the end, to view parts of the gastrointestinal tract including the stomach and beginning of the small intestine in order to take a picture of the pancreas. Biopsies (tissue samples) can be taken during this exam if needed. MRCP is used to view the bile ducts and pancreatic ducts. Biopsies can be taken during this procedure too. Other screening tests can include additional imaging exams and blood tests.

If pancreatic cancer is diagnosed following any of the tests above, treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer (how far the cancer has grown or spread). Treatment can include some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy.

Avoid the following

A family history of pancreatic cancer

General Population
Familial Risk
9.8% One affected first-degree relative
Hereditary Risk
Up to 36%