What are pancreatic cancers and tumors?
Your pancreas is a gland located in your abdomen between the stomach and spine. It’s close to other digestive organs, like your liver and spleen.
- Pancreatic tumors are abnormal growths that may or may not be cancerous. Tumors can become large enough to affect organ functioning.
- Pancreatic cancer occurs when tumor cells become cancerous. In addition to affecting organ functioning, they can spread to other areas of the body.
In the early stages, many people do not notice symptoms. This is one of the reasons pancreatic cancer and tumors are typically not detected until later stages. Some people don’t notice symptoms until they are very sick.
Types of pancreatic cancer and tumors we treat
There are many types of pancreatic cancer and tumors. Experts at Henry Ford treat all of them, including:
Exocrine cells play an important role in pancreas functioning. They release a substance (enzymes) that helps the small intestine break down fats, carbohydrates and other nutrients. Exocrine tumors account for 95 percent of pancreatic cancers.
Pancreatic adenocarcinoma, also known as ductal carcinoma, is the most common type of exocrine tumor. It typically starts in the lining of tiny tubes (ducts) through which enzymes travel to reach the small intestine.
Rare exocrine tumors account for roughly 4 percent of exocrine tumors. They include:
- Acinar cell carcinoma develops in the cells that make pancreatic enzymes.
- Adenosquamous carcinoma of the pancreas grows quickly and contains cells that are similar to surrounding tissue and gland-like cells.
- Ampullary cancer occurs where the pancreatic ducts join with the bile duct and empty into the small intestine. This area is known as the ampulla of Vater.
- Pancreatic squamous cell carcinoma forms when skin cancer cells spread to the pancreas.
- Signet ring cell carcinoma is a rare form of cancer that often starts in the stomach but can also occur in the pancreas.
- Undifferentiated carcinoma is a growth containing medium-sized, early-stage cancer cells that do not resemble nearby tissue.
Neuroendocrine tumorsNeuroendocrine tumors (NETs) are less common than exocrine tumors. NETs develop in the endocrine gland of the pancreas. The gland secretes cells that help your body regulate blood sugar levels.
Types of neuroendocrine tumors include:
- Functional NETs cause the body to secrete excess digestive hormones, such as insulin, gastrin and glucagon.
- Nonfunctional NETs do not make enough excess hormones to cause symptoms. They may grow for a long time or spread to another organ before they cause symptoms.
- Carcinoid tumors are common in other parts of the digestive system, although they occasionally start in the pancreas.
Pancreatic cysts and noncancerous growths
Some pancreas growths are noncancerous (benign). But certain types can become cancerous without treatment. Others have no risk of becoming cancerous and do not require treatment.
Cysts (cystic neoplasms) are a common type of benign, precancerous growth in the pancreas. They are saclike structures that contain cells, fluid and other materials. Types of cystic neoplasms affecting the pancreas include:
- Serous cystic neoplasms contain watery fluid. They are almost always benign and typically only need treatment if they become large enough to cause symptoms.
- Mucinous cystic neoplasms are slow-growing precancerous growths containing a jelly-like substance called mucin. This type most often occurs in women.
- Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms grow in pancreatic ducts. Without treatment, they may become cancerous. Some require surgery.
- Solid pseudopapillary neoplasms are rare, slow-growing, benign tumors that typically develop in young women.
Risk factors and symptoms of pancreatic cancer and tumors
Some people face a higher risk of pancreatic cancer, tumors and cysts. But not everyone who is high-risk ends up with them. If you have concerns, talk with your doctor to learn more and find out if you can manage your risk.
You may face a higher risk if you:
- Are 55 years old or older
- Have a personal or family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis (inflammation in the pancreas)
- Use tobacco
- Are significantly overweight (obese)
- Have type 2 diabetes
- Carry gene mutations responsible for pancreatic cancer or tumors
- Are of African-American ancestry
Seek prompt medical care if you are experiencing symptoms of pancreatic cancer or tumors. Your initial visit may be with a primary care provider. They may refer you to cancer specialists for further evaluation.
Pancreatic cancer, tumor and cyst symptoms vary by type and can include:
- Diabetes: Rare pancreatic tumors can alter the cells that make insulin, causing diabetes. For people who already have diabetes, some tumors can make it more difficult to control blood sugar levels.
- Jaundice: Jaundice causes yellowing in the skin or whites of the eyes, dark-colored urine, pale stool or itchy skin. When this condition occurs in adults, it’s a sign of liver issues. And pancreatic cancer that spreads often affects the liver.
- Nausea and vomiting: Tumors can irritate the stomach or cause nausea, pain and vomiting after eating.
- Pain that starts in your abdomen and spreads toward your back: Tumors can irritate nearby nerves, causing a dull or aching pain toward your mid-back.
- Weight loss: You may experience a loss of appetite or digestive issues that cause unintended weight loss.