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What is it?

For an explanation of the pancreas and the words exocrine and endocrine, please see the description under "What is the pancreas?" in Pancreatic diseases.

Cancer is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that form tumours, damage normal tissue, and eventually metastasise (spread throughout the body). Most (95 per cent) pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas that develop in the ducts and sometimes in the enzyme producing cells of the exocrine tissue. Endocrine tumours are usually less aggressive than exocrine tumours and are much more rare. They may be benign tumours (those that do not metastasise, such as insulinomas) or malignant (a group of cancers called islet cell cancers). Endocrine tumours are usually detected earlier than exocrine cancers because they tend to produce excessive amounts of the hormones insulin and glucagon that frequently result in symptoms.

Because they are more common and aggressive, the remainder of this discussion focuses on exocrine cancer. Unfortunately, these are hard to detect at an early stage. Since the pancreas is deep in the body, tumours usually cannot be seen or felt during a physical examination and, by the time symptoms develop, the cancer often has spread throughout the pancreas and beyond. One exception to this is a cancer that forms where the pancreatic and bile duct empty into the duodenum, ampullary cancer. Since ampullary cancer often obstructs the flow of bile from the bile duct and causes jaundice, it has the potential of being detected earlier than most exocrine cancers.

In the year 2012 in Australia 1451 males and 1374 females were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was the 11th most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia in 2012. In 2008–2012 in Australia, individuals diagnosed with pancreatic cancer had a 7% chance of surviving for 5 years compared to their counterparts in the general Australian population.

Last Review Date: March 6, 2017