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%) 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). They often are detected earlier than exocrine cancers because they tend to produce excessive amounts of the hormones insulin and glucagon that produce 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 2000 in Australia approximately 1200 males and 750 females were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It is the 10th most common cancer for men and women in Australia.