Overview of Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is an organ of the digestive system. It is located near the stomach and small intestine and has two major jobs or functions. The exocrine pancreas makes enzymes that help in the digestion of food products, and the endocrine pancreas produces several hormones that have diverse functions. Cancers of the pancreas can occur in the exocrine pancreas (classic pancreatic adenocarcinomas) or in the endocrine pancreas. This section will discuss exocrine pancreatic carcinoma.

Cancers of the exocrine pancreas are a very serious health issue in the United States. The American Cancer Society reports that approximately 38,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 34,000 people die from the disease each year. According to data published in Cancer Research—a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR)—pancreatic cancer is expected to be the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States by the year 2030.

Due to difficulties in diagnosis, the aggressive nature of pancreatic cancer, and the limited systemic treatments available, the five-year survival rate (number of patients who are alive 5 years after diagnosis) for patients who have pancreatic adenocarcinoma is only about 5 percent. According to the AACR, reasons for this include:

    the location of the pancreas (deep within the abdomen, making it difficult to visualize with imaging procedures),
  • the fact that pancreatic tumors are often surrounded by dense tissue that may interfere with chemotherapy delivery to the tumors, and
  • data that suggests pancreatic cancer metastasizes early in its course.

Pancreatic cancer is currently the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Because many patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have a poor prognosis, it is very important that patients are offered the opportunity to participate in clinical trials. Patients who have pancreatic cancer should speak with a physician regarding clinical trials that are available.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 15 Aug 1999

Last Modified: 21 May 2014