What is pancreatic cancer?

Cancer cell illustration
Pancreatic cancer cell illustration

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a gland that sits deep within the abdomen between the stomach and spine. It is about 15cm long and is shaped a little like a leaf. It has two main functions - to produce enzymes for digestion and hormones that control blood-sugar levels. The pancreas is described as having three parts, the head, body and tail.

What is cancer?

Organs such as the pancreas are made up of basic building blocks called cells. New cells are constantly being made throughout our bodies to help us grow, replace damaged tissue or heal injuries. Normally cells grow, multiply and die in an organised way. However, sometimes things go wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, or old cells do not die, causing abnormalities in the blood, lymphatic system, or tissue. A growth of abnormal tissue cells is called a tumour. Tumours that grow from pancreas cells are called pancreatic tumours.

Some tumours are benign meaning that although they are abnormal, they do not spread to other parts of the body. When the tumour grows out of control and spreads to other parts of the body it is called a malignant tumour or cancer. When cancers spread to other parts of the body they are called ‘secondary’, ‘invasive’ cancer or ‘metastasis’. Cancer cells travel through the blood or lymph systems and are named after the place where the cancer originated. For example, pancreatic cancer that spreads to the liver is called pancreatic cancer with liver metastasis. When pancreatic cancer spreads it often does so to the liver, abdominal wall, lungs, bones and/or lymph nodes.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer begins when cells in the pancreas become abnormal and grow out of control to form a tumour. Around 70% of pancreatic cancers are found in the head of the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancers are defined as “less common cancers”. It is estimated that in 2020, almost 4000 people in Australia will have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. 

Types of pancreatic cancer

The two main types of pancreatic cancer are either exocrine or neuroendocrine tumours, based on the cells they start in. Exocrine cells produce enzymes to aid in food digestion and neuroendocrine cells produce hormones such as insulin and glucagon which help regulate blood sugar levels. 

More than 95% of pancreatic tumours are exocrine tumours. The most common type of pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma, which begins in the lining of the pancreatic duct. About 9 out of 10 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have a pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma or ‘PDAC’.

Around 5% are pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (PNETs, NETs or islet cell tumours) and are often slower growing than exocrine tumours. It is important to know the type of tumour as each type acts differently and are managed differently, responding to different treatments.


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2019. Cancer in Australia 2019. Cancer series no.119. Cat. no. CAN 123. Canberra: AIHW.

Cancer Council, Understanding Pancreatic Cancer booklet, accessed January 2020.

PanCan, accessed January 2020.


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