Types of Pancreatic Cancer

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Cancer occurs when previously normal cells begin to divide and grow quickly. Doctors classify pancreatic cancer according to the type of cells involved: exocrine or endocrine.

The pancreas has two functions:

  1. It makes digestive enzymes, also called pancreatic juices. When the stomach sends partially digested food to the intestine, the pancreas releases the enzymes to mix with the food. This is the exocrine function.
  2. It makes hormones, mainly insulin and glucagon. Insulin helps regulate blood sugar. Glucagon acts to raise blood sugar. This is the endocrine function.

The pancreas has three regions:

  1. The head is near the upper intestine. It houses the main pancreatic duct that leads to the duodenum.
  2. The middle section makes up most of the pancreas.
  3. The tail section is next to the spleen.

Exocrine pancreatic cancer

Exocrine pancreatic cancer is the most common type.

Exocrine cells release the digestive enzymes through ducts. These cells make up most of the pancreas.

The pancreatic ducts come together to form the main pancreatic duct. This main duct joins the bile duct of the liver to form the ampulla of Vater, located in the duodenum.

Tumors can interfere with the exocrine function, sending pancreatic juices back into the pancreas. This malfunction can damage the pancreas and disrupt digestion.

Endocrine pancreatic cancer

Endocrine cells produce hormones. They make up less than five percent of the pancreas.

Found in structures called the islets of Langerhans, these cells release hormones directly into the bloodstream.

If a tumor affects the endocrine function of the pancreas, blood sugar levels rise. This eventually causes diabetes.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

Several types of cancer can affect the pancreas:

  • Exocrine pancreatic cancer (adenocarcinoma) occurs in the ducts that carry pancreatic juices. About 95 percent of pancreatic cancers affect the exocrine cells.
  • Ampullary cancer arises from the ampulla of Vater. This is where the liver bile duct and pancreatic duct come together and empty into the duodenum.
  • Cystic neoplasms and cysts are premalignant or benign pancreatic masses or lesions.
  • Locally advanced pancreatic cancers are those in which the tumor adheres to or invades adjacent structures.
  • Pancreatic metastasis is cancer that starts in the pancreas and spreads to another part of the body.
  • Neuroendocrine tumor (islet cell tumor) is a mass of abnormal cells in the endocrine (hormone-producing) tissues of the pancreas.

Contact Us About Pancreatic Cancer

To learn more about pancreatic cancer, contact UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at 412-647-2811.