On this page: The pancreas | What the pancreas does | What is pancreatic cancer? | What types are there? | How common is it? | What are the risk factors? | What are the symptoms? | Which health professionals will I see?
The pancreas is part of the digestive system. It produces enzymes, which break down food so it can be absorbed and used by the body. It is a long, irregular shaped gland about 13–15cm long that lies between your stomach and spine. It is divided into:
A tube called the pancreatic duct connects the pancreas to the first part of the small bowel (duodenum). Another tube called the common bile duct joins the pancreatic duct and connects the liver and gall bladder to the small bowel. The common bile duct carries bile, a substance that helps to digest fats.
It contains two types of glands, the exocrine glands and the endocrine glands, which release substances that help with digestion.
Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells develop in part of the pancreas. This may affect how the pancreas works, including the functioning of the exocrine or endocrine glands.
It can occur in any part of the pancreas, but about 70% of pancreatic cancers are located in the head of the pancreas.
Cancer can also spread to nearby lymph nodes (part of the immune system), blood vessels or nerves. Cancer cells may travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, such as the liver.
There are two types of pancreatic tumours:
Make up more than 90% of pancreatic tumours. The most common exocrine tumour, called an adenocarcinoma, begins in the lining of the pancreatic duct.
Other types of tumours include adenosquamous carcinomas and undifferentiated carcinomas.
Rare types of tumours affecting the endocrine system. They begin in the endocrine cells, which produce hormones that control the growth of cells in the body.
PNETs are categorised as either hormone secreting (functioning) or non-hormone secreting (non-functioning). Functioning tumours are usually named after the type of hormone they produce.
Types of PNETs include:
These webpages have information on neuroendocrine tumours affecting the pancreas. Neuroendocrine tumours can also affect other areas of the body, including the lungs, kidneys and bowel. For information about these types of tumours, contact the Unicorn Foundation on 0419 871 975 or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
About 2500 Australians are diagnosed with exocrine pancreatic cancer each year. The average age of people diagnosed with this cancer is 71. It is the twelfth most common cancer in men and ninth most common cancer in women.
PNETs are very rare. Fewer than 100 people in Australia are diagnosed with a PNET each year.
Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop pancreatic cancer. Risk factors include:
Most people with pancreatic cancer do not have a family history of the disease. However, about one in 10 people who develop pancreatic cancer have a faulty gene that can run in families.
You may have an inherited family risk if you have two or more first-degree relatives affected by pancreatic cancer, or a history of an inherited syndrome. Some inherited syndromes that may cause pancreatic cancer include Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, the familial breast cancer gene (BRCA1 and BRCA2), familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome, Lynch syndrome and hereditary pancreatitis.
Some PNETs are caused by a rare inherited syndrome, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN-1) or neurofibromatosis.
The ‘degree of relationship’ describes how many genes are shared between two blood relatives. A first-degree relative shares about half their genes with you, for example, your parents, siblings or children.
If you are concerned about your family history or if you want to know more about genetic testing, talk to your doctor or visit the Australian Familial Pancreatic Cancer Cohort (AFPaCC) website, www.pancreaticcancer.net.au/afpacc.
Early stages of pancreatic cancer rarely cause symptoms. Symptoms may go unnoticed until the cancer is large enough to affect nearby organs.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include:
See your doctor if you experience any of these. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are also common to other conditions.
If you have cancer, you will be cared for by a team of health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your treatment. This is called a multidisciplinary team or MDT.
Your general practitioner (GP) can be kept informed about all your test results and treatment. They may refer you to specialists and answer questions you have in-between appointments.
Some people in non-metropolitan areas have to travel to attend appointments with specialists. If you need to travel a long way for treatment you may be able to get financial assistance towards the cost of accommodation or travel. To check your eligibility or to apply speak to your GP, the hospital social worker or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
|gastroenterologist||specialises in diagnosing and treating diseases of the digestive system, including pancreatic ancer and blocked bile ducts
||specialises in surgery to the liver, pancreas and surrounding organs
||prescribes and coordinates the course of chemotherapy
||prescribes and coordinates the course of radiotherapy
||diagnoses, treats and manages hormonal disorders, including diabetes
|nurses||support and assist you through all stages of your illness
||recommends an eating plan for you to follow while you are in treatment and recovery
|social worker, psychologist and occupational therapist
||link you to support services and help you with any emotional, physical or practical issues
|palliative care team
||assists with symptom management and emotional support for you and your family