Pancreatic cancer: What is it?

The pancreas is a gland that extends across the abdomen and contains three types of cells.

Pancreatic cancer occurs when these cells grow out of control.

  • Exocrine cells create digestive juices that contain enzymes to help break down foods for the body's use.
  • Duct cells line the tube system that routes the digestive juices to the intestines. This is the most common starting point for pancreatic cancer (adenocarcinoma).
  • Endocrine cells are arranged in clusters called islets. These islets make hormones like insulin that help balance the amount of sugar in the blood.

Both types of cells can form tumors in the pancreas.

  • Adenocarcinomas are the most common type of pancreatic cancer.
  • Endocrine tumors are known as islet cell tumors that are classified by several sub-types. Most are benign; they are not cancerous. But a few types become pancreatic cancer.
  • Acinar cell cancers (from the exocrine cells) are uncommon.

Reviewed By: Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, medical director, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute
First Published: 09/17/2009
Last Reviewed: 08/26/2009