Pancreatic cancer

You are here: 

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a malignant tumour that starts in the cells of the pancreas. Malignant means that it can spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body.

The pancreas is part of the digestive system. It is a large gland that lies behind your stomach, deep in the upper part of the abdomen. The pancreas makes digestive juices. These juices flow down the pancreatic duct, which is a tube in the centre of the pancreas. The pancreatic duct joins the common bile duct, which carries bile from the liver. These ducts empty into the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine. The juices and bile help your body digest food.

The pancreas is also part of the hormonal system. A small number of cells in the pancreas are endocrine cells. These endocrine cells make and release the hormones insulin and glucagon. These hormones control the level of sugar in your blood.

Cells in the pancreas sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to non-cancerous, or benign, tumours such as pancreatic pseudocyst or serous cystadenoma.

Changes to cells of the pancreas can also cause precancerous tumours. This means that the cells are not yet cancer but there is a higher chance these abnormal changes will become cancer. Precancerous tumours that can develop in the pancreas are mucinous cystic neoplasm (MCN), intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm (IPMN), solid and pseudopapillary neoplasm and pancreatic neuroendocrine tumour (PNET, or pancreatic islet cell tumour).

In some cases, changes to pancreatic cells can cause pancreatic cancer. Most often, pancreatic cancer starts in cells of the pancreatic duct. This type of cancer is called ductal adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. About 95% of all pancreatic cancers are ductal adenocarcinomas.

Rare types of pancreatic cancer can also develop such as adenosquamous carcinoma. Another rare type of cancer can start in endocrine cells in the pancreas. This type of cancer is called pancreatic neuroendocrine carcinoma, which is a type of neuroendocrine cancer. Find out more about pancreatic neuroendocrine carcinoma.

Diagram of the digestive system


Dr Christine Friedenreich Preventing cancer through physical activity

Read more

Cancer information in over a hundred languages

Illustration of question mark

The Canadian Cancer Society’s Cancer Information Service (CIS) is Canada’s only national, bilingual, toll-free service that offers personalized comprehensive cancer information in over 100 languages.

Learn more