About Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer death in men and women in the U.S. According to the American Cancer Society, it is estimated that 48,960 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed nationwide in 2015.

Pancreatic cancer occurs when normal cells of the pancreas grow out of control within the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ located just behind the stomach. Its two main functions are to produce insulin in just the right amount to maintain constant glucose, or sugar, levels in the body and to produce enzymes to promote food digestion.

Normal pancreatic cells have well-controlled growth, do not spread or move outside the pancreas and have a defined life span. Pancreatic cancer occurs when the normal cells of the pancreas grow out of control.

Types of pancreatic cancer

There are several types of pancreatic cancer. They are named for the cell type within the pancreas that started the cancer.

  • Adenocarcinoma of the Pancreas
    This is the most common, accounting for more than 80 percent of all pancreatic cancer. This type of pancreatic cancer starts from cells lining the main or accessory duct of the pancreas.
  • Adenocarcinoma of the Ampulla
    This is another common type of cancer and starts from cells lining the approach to the ampulla where the bile duct and the pancreatic duct join the small intestine.
  • Intraductal Papillay Mucinous Neoplasm (IPMN)
    A growing number of people are being diagnosed with IPMN which start from pancreatic duct cells that produce mucin. These are important because while some IPMNs are already cancerous when diagnosed, most have not yet become malignant. If left untreated, IPMNs may progress to pancreatic cancer. If surgically removed at an early stage, over 95 percent of people will be cured. 
  • Islet Cell Neoplasms of the Pancreas
    Islet cells make and release different kinds of hormones (such as gastrin, insulin and glucagon) into the blood. There are three major types of islet cell neoplasms of the pancreas and several more rare types of these tumors. Islet cell tumors may be functional (the hormones that are released cause symptoms) or nonfunctional (the hormones that are released do not cause symptoms) tumors.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer

While the exact causes of pancreatic cancer are unknown, there are multiple risk factors associated with the diagnosis. According to the National Cancer Institute, these risk factors include:

  • Age - Most pancreatic cancer occurs in people over the age of 60.
  • Smoking - Heavy cigarette smokers are two or three times more likely than non-smokers to develop pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes - Pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people who have diabetes than in those who do not. New onset diabetes can also be a symptom of pancreatic cancer.
  • Gender - Slightly more men than women are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
  • Race - African-Americans and Ashkenazi Jews are more likely than Asians, Hispanics or Caucasians to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
  • Chronic pancreatitis - This condition of the pancreas has been linked with a nine-fold increased risk for pancreatic cancer over the general population.
  • Family history - The risk for developing pancreatic cancer triples if a person's mother, father or sibling had the disease. High-risk groups include individuals who are positive for BRCA1, BRCA2 and several other genetic syndromes. Medical geneticists at OHSU can help you determine your familial risk for pancreatic cancer.

Can you prevent pancreatic cancer?

Unlike other cancers such as colorectal and breast, pancreatic cancer screening is in its infancy. Currently, there are no routine screening tests to detect pancreatic cancer in the general population; however, researchers are searching for new screening tests that can help detect pancreatic cancer in at-risk populations. The American Cancer Society recommends that people avoid smoking, stay at a good weight, eat a balanced diet and get plenty of exercise to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.