Pancreatic cancer 

Introduction 

Coping with cancer

In this video, people who have been through cancer treatment talk about what kept them going and the practicalities of treatment.

Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

How cancer starts

The body is made up of millions of different types of cells. Sometimes these cells can become abnormal and start to multiply. When this happens, it causes a growth known as a tumour to form.

Tumours can be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). They can occur in any part of the body where the cells multiply abnormally.

For more information, read about the causes of pancreatic cancer.

Reduce your cancer risk

Eating a balanced diet, being a healthy weight and drinking less alcohol could reduce your cancer risk

Around 8,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (also known as cancer of the pancreas) each year.

It is the ninth most common cancer in the UK, more common in people over 60 and not usually found in people under 40 years of age.

The pancreas

The pancreas is a gland  an organ that produces and releases substances to other parts of the body.

It is approximately 15cm (six inches) in length and situated high in your abdomen (tummy) behind the stomach, where the ribs meet at the bottom of your breastbone.

The pancreas produces digestive enzymes (proteins) and a hormone known as insulin.

  • digestive enzymes help break down food into fragments so they can be absorbed by your body
  • insulin helps keep sugar levels in your blood at a stable level

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is when a tumour starts to develop in the pancreas. It rarely causes any symptoms when it first develops, which can make it hard to diagnose.

The first symptoms can include pain, unexpected weight loss and jaundice. These symptoms can be caused by a wide variety of conditions and are not usually the result of cancer. If you are concerned or these symptoms start suddenly, contact your GP.

Learn more in symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

If your GP suspects you have pancreatic cancer, they may examine you for signs of jaundice and carry out a blood test, as well as physically examine your abdomen. They may also send you to hospital for further investigation, including an ultrasound scan.

Learn more in diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Who is affected?

Pancreatic cancer can occur at any age, but tends to affect people aged between 50 and 80 and is rare among younger people.

Approximately 63% of people diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas are over 70. Men tend to be more affected than women.

People who smoke and people with diabetes or chronic pancreatitis are at higher risk of pancreatic cancer.

Learn more in causes of pancreatic cancer.

Outlook

Cancer of the pancreas is a very serious form of cancer which is both difficult to detect and treat. Because pancreatic cancer causes few symptoms in its early stages, the condition is often not diagnosed until the cancer is relatively advanced.

Surgery to remove the tumour is usually the only way to completely cure pancreatic cancer. But this is a suitable treatment for only around 15 to 20% of patients.

If your pancreatic cancer cannot be cured, then treatments can help slow the growth of the tumour and ease any symptoms you may be experiencing.

See treatment of pancreatic cancer for more.

Page last reviewed: 03/07/2012

Next review due: 03/07/2014

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