The pancreas is a gland about 6 inches long that is shaped like a thin pear lying on its side. The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas lies between the stomach and the spine.
The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:
- To make juices that help digest (break down) food.
- To make hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help control blood sugar levels. Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.
This summary is about exocrine pancreatic cancer. For information on endocrine pancreatic cancer, see the PDQ summary on Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors (Islet Cell Tumors) Treatment.
For information on pancreatic cancer in children, see the PDQ summary on Unusual Cancers of Childhood.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include the following:
- Being very overweight.
- Having a personal history of diabetes or chronic pancreatitis.
- Having a family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis.
- Having certain hereditary conditions, such as:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
- Light-colored stools.
- Dark urine.
- Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back.
- Weight loss for no known reason.
- Loss of appetite.
- Feeling very tired.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for the following reasons:
- There aren’t any noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.
- The signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, when present, are like the signs and symptoms of many other illnesses.
- The pancreas is hidden behind other organs such as the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, spleen, and bile ducts.
If you have any of these symptoms, please consult your doctor.