What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

Your pancreas is the abdominal gland that makes digestive enzymes and insulin for digestion. Pancreatic cancer develops in the cells of your pancreas; it forms when cells in the pancreas change and multiply abnormally, becoming tumors. This cancer can interfere with the how a pancreas works, and it may spread to nearby organs, a process called metastasis.

Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 7% of all cancer deaths. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer vary based on the type of cancer.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

  • Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas: The most common pancreatic cancer, it occurs in the lining of the pancreatic duct.
  • Adenosquamous carcinoma: A rare form of pancreatic cancer that affects both the squamous cells, which form the lining of the digestive tract, and gland-like cells.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: A rare form of pancreatic cancer that is characterized by abnormal squamous cell growth.
  • Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors/islet cell carcinoma: There are several types of islet cell carcinoma:
    • Non-functional: These types of tumors usually do not cause symptoms (asymptomatic) and are discovered on imaging. Most islet cell carcinoma tumors are non-functional.
    • Gastrinoma: Cancer that forms in the cells that produce gastrin, a hormone that aids the digestion of food.
    • Insulinoma: Cancer that forms in the cells that produce insulin, which controls how much glucose is in the bloodstream.
    • Glucagonoma: Cancer in the cells that produce glucagon, which increases the how much glucose is in the bloodstream.
    • VIPomas, somatostatinomas and others: These types of cancer are in the cells that produce hormones that control the balance of water, sugar and salt in your body. They are often grouped together because they are treated in mostly the same way.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer has been called a silent disease because it does not have many symptoms until the cancer advances. The early symptoms may be vague and not specific to the pancreas, such as back pain.

Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Pain in your abdomen, back or both
  • Indigestion or discomfort, especially after eating fatty foods
  • Yellowing of the skin (jaundice) or the whites of the eyes (scleral icterus)
  • Dark yellow or brown urine
  • Lack of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • An enlarged abdomen from a swollen gallbladder
  • Pale, greasy, foul-smelling stools that float in the toilet
  • Blood clots in the leg, causing pain, redness or swelling in your leg
  • Blood clots in your lung, causing shortness of breath or chest pain
  • Uneven, lumpy fatty tissue under your skin