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What You Need to Know about Pancreatic Cancer

What You Need to Know about Pancreatic Cancer

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Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest types of cancer, with more than 57,000 Americans expected to be diagnosed in 2020. In Maryland, it’s the third leading cause of cancer death after lung and colorectal cancer. This year alone, the American Cancer Society estimates that 1,070 Marylanders will be diagnosed with this disease, and 870 will die from it.

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Located in the abdomen between the stomach and spine, your pancreas is an organ that plays an important role in converting the food you eat into fuel for your body’s cells. It has two main functions: aiding in digestion and regulating blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer begins when abnormal pancreas cells grow out of control, forming a tumor. Depending on the type of cell cancer forms in, pancreatic tumors are either exocrine or neuroendocrine.

Nearly 93 percent of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells, which produce enzymes aiding in digestion. About 7 percent of pancreatic tumors are neuroendocrine, forming in the cells that create hormones to control blood sugar levels.


One of the reasons the survival rate of pancreatic cancer is so low—only about 10 percent of patients survive five years with the disease— is because there are rarely any symptoms in the early stages. Once symptoms are detected, the tumor has usually grown very large or spread to other parts of the body.

Having one or more of the following symptoms does not necessarily mean you have pancreatic cancer. In fact, many of these symptoms are more likely caused by other conditions. Still, if you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin, also known as jaundice
  • Persistent pain in your back or belly
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Little or no appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Enlarged gallbladder or liver
  • Blood clots
  • Diabetes

Risk Factors

Different types of cancer have various risk factors. With pancreatic cancer, there are some risk factors you can control and others you have no control over. Risk factors you can’t control include:

  • Your age. Your risk of this type of cancer increases as you age; almost all pancreatic cancer patients are older than 45. The average age of diagnosis is 70.
  • Your gender. Men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women. According to the American Cancer Society, this may be because men are heavier smokers.
  • Your race. Black people are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than Caucasians.
  • Your family history. Some families have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer, sometimes due to an inherited genetic syndrome. It’s important to know your family's medical history and tell your doctor if anyone in your immediate family has had pancreatic cancer.

By living a healthy lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Risk factors you can control include:

  • Tobacco use. Smokers have nearly twice the risk of developing pancreatic cancer than non-smokers. Approximately 25 percent of pancreatic cancers are caused by cigarette smoking. However, your risk can be reduced if you quit smoking. Need help? Join our Smoking Cessation Program.
  • Being overweight. Obese people are about 20 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Gaining weight as an adult can also increase your risk, and carrying extra weight around your waistline can be a risk factor even if you aren’t very overweight.
  • Workplace exposure to chemicals. You may have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer if you’re heavily exposed to certain chemicals in the workplace, especially in the dry cleaning and metalworking industries.
  • Heavy alcohol use. Excessive drinking can cause chronic pancreatitis, a disorder causing long-term inflammation of the pancreas.

Diagnosis and Treatment

To be sure of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, your doctor must get information from various tests and samples. For the most accurate diagnosis, your doctor will:

  • Review your family and medical history
  • Perform a physical exam
  • Possibly order blood, urine, and stool tests
  • Order an imaging study, like a CT scan or MRI

To get an exact diagnosis, your doctor also needs to collect a biopsy—a tissue sample—of the tumor. During a biopsy, a pathologist looks at tissue samples under a microscope. The shape, size, and arrangement of the cells can help the pathologist determine the type of cancer.

No one should face pancreatic cancer alone. If you think you might have pancreatic cancer or if you need treatment, our MD Anderson Cancer Network™ certified physicians are here to help you every step of the way.

Learn more about our cancer services by visiting or calling 240-566-4100.