The pancreas is located on the left side of the abdomen, above the intestines and behind the stomach. It is made up of exocrine and endocrine tissue. Exocrine tissue produces digestive juices (or enzymes) to help digest food. Endocrine tissue produces hormones such as insulin and glucagon to help the body regulate sugar. There are many types of pancreatic tumors. The most common and aggressive type is ductal adenocarcinoma. Other types include islet cell tumors, pancreatic lymphoma, and cystic tumors, such as intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms (IPMN or IPMT). Any pancreatic tumor, as well as benign conditions such as pancreatitis, require diagnosis and treatment by expert specialists.

Overview and Symptoms

By the time most patients notice symptoms, they already have locally advanced or metastatic (spreading) disease. Pancreatic cancer symptoms can vary, but the most common include:

  • Back or abdominal pain
  • Jaundice (yellowness of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss
Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis

Doctors use a number of different imaging tests to screen for pancreatic cancer. These may include:

  • CT Scan – Rapid multidetector computed tomography (CT) with three-dimensional imaging is one of the best ways to diagnose pancreatic cancer and determine its stage (how widespread it is). A CT scan also can detect liver metastases, where pancreatic cancer is likely to spread. 
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)
  • positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • ERCP and EUS – If you have suspected pancreatic cancer, you may see a specialized interventional gastroenterologist  for an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) or for an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). ERCP and EUS can help diagnose pancreatic cancer at a very early stage. Using ERCP, doctors can also place a stent in the bile duct to relieve jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).

Treatment

The only cure for pancreatic cancer is surgery, provided the tumor has not spread and can be removed completely and safely. Doctors may also use chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs) and/or radiation therapy (high-energy radiation or particles) to:

  • Kill cancer cells and shrink the tumor before surgery
  • Extend survival and prevent cancer recurrence after surgery
  • Ease and help prevent symptoms as well as prolong survival when the tumor cannot be removed

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment options for you. Based on your particular diagnosis, surgery may not be an option or the best choice. You may decide instead on therapy that maximizes the quality of life. You may also want to consider a second opinion for added peace of mind about your treatment decision.

Learn More

Learn More

New developments in clinical care and research at the BIDMC Cancer Center are giving pancreatic cancer patients new reasons for hope.

Pancreatic Cancer Program