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Pancreatic cancer

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Anatomy and physiology of the pancreas

The pancreas is a flat, pear-shaped gland. It is behind and below the stomach. The pancreas is part of the digestive system. It is also part of the endocrine system. The endocrine system is the group of glands and cells in the body that make and release hormones (which control many functions such as growth, reproduction, sleep, hunger and metabolism) into the blood.

Diagram of the digestive system


The pancreas is about 15 cm (6 in) long. The widest section is called the head. The narrowest part is called the tail. The middle section is called the body.

The pancreas has a series of small tubes that drain into the pancreatic duct. The pancreatic duct joins the common bile duct and empties into the duodenum. The duodenum is the first part of the small intestine that receives partially digested food from the stomach, absorbs nutrients and passes digested food to the jejunum. The duodenum also receives bile (a yellow-green fluid that helps digest fat) from the liver and gallbladder.

Diagram of the pancreas


The pancreas is made up of exocrine cells and endocrine cells. These cells have different functions.

Exocrine cells

Most of the cells in the pancreas are exocrine cells. Exocrine cells make and release pancreatic juice. The juice travels through the pancreatic duct into the duodenum. Enzymes in the pancreatic juice help digest fat, carbohydrates and protein in food.

Endocrine cells

A small number of the cells in the pancreas are endocrine cells. They are arranged in clusters called islets, or islets of Langerhans. The islets make and release insulin and glucacon into the blood. These hormones help control the level of sugar, or glucose, in the blood.

Insulin lowers the amount of sugar in the blood when the blood sugar is high. It stimulates the liver, muscles and fatty tissues to absorb and store the extra blood sugar.

Glucagon increases the amount of sugar in the blood when the blood sugar is low. It stimulates the liver and other body tissues to release stored sugar into the blood.


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