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Pancreatic Cancer: Everything You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by Mae Charisse Antalan, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Hello Doctor Medical Panel · Updated Mar 13, 2023

Pancreatic Cancer: Everything You Need To Know

Pancreatic cancer: what is it? Cancer that develops in pancreatic tissue is known as pancreatic cancer. The tissues of the pancreas, a vital endocrine organ located behind the stomach, develop pancreatic cancer.

What is the function of the pancreas?

The pancreas plays a crucial role by producing the digestive enzymes the body needs to break down lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins. The pancreas also releases enzymes that aid digestion and produces hormones that help manage your blood sugar.

Additionally, the pancreas produces the essential hormones glucagon and insulin, which control the metabolism of glucose (sugar). Insulin helps cells use glucose for energy, and glucagon helps raise glucose levels when they are too low. Cancer of the pancreas may be challenging to detect because of the pancreas’ location and is frequently found in later stages of the disease.

Types of pancreatic cancer

Cancer of the pancreas can begin in the head, body, or tail of the organ. The wide end is referred to as the head, the thin end is referred to as the tail, and the portion in the middle is referred to as the body. Knowing the cell type and where in the pancreas the cancer began can help your doctor determine the best course of treatment for you.

The four distinct varieties of cancer of the pancreas are as follows:

  • Squamous
  • Pancreatic progenitor
  • Aberrantly differentiated endocrine exocrine (ADEX)
  • Immunogenic

The immunogenic variety may react to specific forms of cancer immunotherapy, in which the immune system is modified to identify and combat cancer cells.

Stages of cancer

Medical specialists will probably perform additional tests to determine whether pancreatic cancer has spread after it is discovered. The results of these tests will be used to assess the stage of the cancer, which will help doctors decide on the most suitable course of treatment. These could include blood tests and imaging examinations like a PET scan.

The following is the progression of pancreatic cancer:

  • Stage 0: The pancreas contains aberrant cells that have the potential to develop into cancer. Sometimes this stage is referred to as precancer.
  • Stage 1: Just the pancreas is affected by the tumor,
  • Stage 2: The tumor has migrated to adjacent lymph nodes or abdominal tissues.
  • Stage 3: the tumor has progressed to the lymph nodes and main blood arteries.
  • Stage 4: The tumor has metastasized to further organs, such as the liver. Additionally known as metastatic cancer.

Here is a closer look at the different phases of pancreatic cancer:

Stage 0 pancreatic cancer

This is the early stage of cancer of the pancreas, which does not necessarily indicate malignancy. Rather, it only means that abnormal cells have been detected. And while there are currently no symptoms, they may eventually transform into cancer.

Stage 1 pancreatic cancer

In stage 1 pancreatic cancer, only the pancreas can produce a tumor. This stage is further divided into two subcategories based on the size of the tumor: 

  • Level 1A, the tumor is no greater than 2 cm.
  • Level 1B, the tumor is less than 4 cm but more than 2 cm in size.

Surgery may be possible to treat pancreatic cancer if it is found at stage 1, which typically has no noticeable symptoms.

Stage 2 pancreatic cancer

Stage 2 cancer of the pancreas is still affecting the pancreas, but it may have spread to a few nearby lymph nodes or blood vessels.

This stage is divided into two sections depending on the malignancy’s location and the size of the tumor:

  • Phase 2A Plus/ Although the tumor is larger than 4 cm, it has not spread to any lymph nodes or nearby tissue.
  • Level 2B: the tumor has spread to nearby lymph nodes.

Jaundice, altered urine color, soreness or sensitivity in the upper abdomen, weight loss, decreased appetite, and weariness are some of the warning signs and symptoms of stage 2 pancreatic cancer.

Stage 3 pancreatic cancer

Stage 3 pancreatic cancer symptoms may include back discomfort, discomfort or sensitivity in the upper abdomen, a decrease in appetite, weight loss, exhaustion, depression, and a pancreatic tumor that has migrated to nearby lymph nodes or blood vessels.

Despite the difficulty of treating stage 3 pancreatic cancer, there are treatments that help minimize symptoms and prevent cancer from spreading. These treatments may include partial pancreas removal surgery, chemotherapy drugs, and radiation therapy.

Most people who are in this stage of the disease will have a recurrence. This is most likely because at the time of diagnosis, micrometastases, or undetectable, minuscule malignant development, have spread outside the pancreas and are not surgically removed.

Stage 4 pancreatic cancer

Because pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms until it has spread to other areas, it is frequently found at this late stage. At this point, you may experience the following symptoms: the upper abdomen hurts, back discomfort, fatigue, jaundice (yellowing of the skin), a decrease in appetite, weightloss, and depression. While it may be a late stage, treatments for stage 4 pancreatic cancer are available.

Pancreatic Cancer FAQs

Can you survive if you catch the cancer early?

This means it is often not found until later stages when the cancer can no longer be removed with surgery and/or has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body. If the cancer is detected at an early stage when surgical removal of the tumor is possible, the 5-year survival rate is 42%.

Who is at high risk for this type of cancer?

The risk of developing pancreatic cancer goes up as people age. Almost all patients are older than 45. About two-thirds are at least 65 years old. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 70.

Can stress cause this cancer?

A new study shows that stress accelerates the development of pancreatic cancer by triggering the release of “fight or flight” hormones.

What does early pancreatic cancer feel like?

A common symptom of pancreatic cancer is a dull pain in the upper abdomen (belly) and/or middle or upper back that comes and goes. This is probably caused by a tumor that has formed in the body or tail of the pancreas because it can press on the spine.

Key Takeaways

Consult a healthcare provider as soon as you can if you have symptoms you believe could be related to pancreatic cancer, especially if you have a higher chance of developing the disease. Pancreatic cancer responds well to treatment when discovered in its early stages, despite the fact that many illnesses can have comparable symptoms.

Learn more about Pancreatic Cancer here


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Mae Charisse Antalan, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Hello Doctor Medical Panel · Updated Mar 13, 2023

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