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Pancreatic Cancer: Frequently Asked Questions

These are some answers to frequently asked questions about pancreatic cancer.

Illustration of  the anatomy of the pancreas
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Q: What is the pancreas?

A: The pancreas is a glandular organ, located deep in your abdomen (belly). It is located behind your stomach and in front of your spine. Your pancreas is about 6 inches long. It has a wide head with a body that tapers to a narrow tail. Your pancreas makes enzymes and hormones. The enzymes mix with bile to help with the digestion of food, especially fats, sugars, and proteins. Your pancreas makes the hormones insulin and glucagon. These hormones help your body control the level of sugar in your blood. Both of these hormones help your body use and store the energy it gets from food.

Q: What is cancer of the pancreas?

A: Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in your pancreas. No one is entirely sure why people get this type of cancer. Experts think that normal cells undergo a series of changes, leading to permanent cell changes, and eventually cancer.

Q: What are the different types of pancreatic cancer?

A: Most cancers of the pancreas start in the ducts that carry pancreatic juices. They are called adenocarcinomas. These are some of the less common types of pancreatic cancer.

  • Mucinous cystadenocarcinomas

  • Acinar cell carcinomas

  • Giant cell carcinomas

  • Pancreatic lymphoma

These types are named after the way they look under the microscope. A rare type of pancreatic cancer starts in the cells of the pancreas that make insulin and other hormones. These cells are called islet cells. Cancers that begin in these cells are called islet cell cancers, or endocrine tumors of the pancreas. (PNET)

Q: What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

A: Pancreatic cancer can grow inside a person's body for a long time before symptoms appear. These are the most common symptoms.

  • Indigestion

  • Yellow eyes, skin, or nails (jaundice)

  • Pain in the abdomen or back

  • Weight loss over several months that is unexpected

  • Nausea

  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)

  • An enlarged abdomen, from a swollen gallbladder

Digestive problems often happen if the tumor blocks the release of pancreatic juices into your  intestines. If this happens, you  can have problems digesting fatty foods. This can cause your stools to be pale, greasy, bulky, and foul smelling. The stools may also float in the toilet.

Q: What is the treatment for pancreatic cancer?

A: Doctors treat pancreatic cancer in these three ways.

  • Surgery

  • Radiation therapy

  • Chemotherapy

You may have these treatments alone or combined.

Q: What is a pancreaticoduodenectomy?

A: This is the most common type of surgery used to remove tumors from the pancreas. It is also called the Whipple procedure. The surgeon removes all of these during the procedure.

  • The head of the pancreas (the body of the pancreas may also be removed) 

  • Distal common bile duct

  • Duodenum (the first part of your small intestine)

  • Part of the stomach (possibly)

  • Gallbladder

  • Lymph nodes near the pancreas 

After surgery, bile from your liver, food from your stomach, and digestive juices from the remaining part of your pancreas all enter the small intestine through a new connection.

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion for a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer?

A: Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another doctor. There are many reasons to get a second opinion. These are some of the reasons.

  • The person is not comfortable with the treatment decision.

  • The type of cancer is rare.

  • There are different ways to treat the cancer.

  • The person is not able to see a cancer expert.

Q: How can you get a second opinion?

A: These are some ways to get a second opinion.

  • Talk with your primary care doctor. He or she may be able to recommend a specialist. This might include a surgeon, medical oncologist, or radiation oncologist. Sometimes these doctors work together at cancer centers or programs.

  • Ask the Cancer Information Service (800-4-CANCER) for help. It can provide information on treatment facilities, cancer centers, and other programs supported by the National Cancer Institute.

  • Get names of doctors from other sources. Check with a local medical society, a nearby hospital, a medical school, local cancer advocacy groups, or other people who have had pancreatic cancer.

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Welch, Annette, MNS, OCN
Last Review Date: 3/25/2014
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.