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Types of pancreatic cancer

Men and women discussing pancreatic cancer

This page is about the different types of pancreatic cancer. Cancers of the pancreas can be grouped according to where in the pancreas the cancer is or according to the type of cell the cancer has started from. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Types of pancreatic cancer

You can get cancer in the head, body or tail of the pancreas. About 75 out of 100 pancreatic cancers (75%) are in the head of the pancreas.

Exocrine cancers

The vast majority of cancers of the pancreas are exocrine in type. Most of these exocrine pancreatic cancers are ductal adenocarcinomas. These cancers start in the cells lining the ducts of the pancreas. The ducts are the tubes that carry the pancreatic digestive juices to the main pancreatic duct and the duodenum.

Rarer types of exocrine pancreatic cancer include cystic tumours and cancer of the acinar cells. The treatment for these types is similar to that for ductal adenocarcinoma.

Endocrine pancreatic tumours

These tumours are uncommon and are treated differently to exocrine tumours. Endocrine pancreatic tumours are also called neuroendocrine tumours. About a third of these produce hormones. They are named after the hormone they produce and include gastrinomas, insulinomas, somatostatinomas, VIPomas and glucagonomas. About two thirds of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours do not produce hormones (called non functioning tumours). 

Rare types of cancer of the pancreas

Very rare types of pancreatic cancer include pancreatoblastomas, sarcomas and lymphomas. They are treated differently to the main types of pancreatic cancer.
 

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Where the cancer is

You can get cancer in the head, body or tail of the pancreas. The symptoms vary depending on where in the pancreas the tumour is. About 75 out of 100 pancreatic cancers (75%) start in the head of the pancreas. You have different types of surgery depending on the site of the cancer.

 

Exocrine cancers - the most common type of pancreatic cancer

The vast majority of cancers of the pancreas are exocrine in type. This means that they start in the cells of the exocrine pancreas, which produces the digestive pancreatic juices. These are released into channels, or ducts, within the pancreas, and pass through the main pancreatic duct into the duodenum. There are a number of different types of exocrine pancreatic cancers.

More than 8 out of 10 exocrine pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas. Nearly all of these are ductal adenocarcinomas. These cancers start in the cells lining the ducts of the pancreas.

There are rarer types of exocrine pancreatic cancer, including

The treatment for these rare types is more or less the same as for ductal adenocarcinoma. So surgery is the main treatment, if that is possible.

Cystic tumours

Cystic tumours cause a cyst or fluid filled sac in the pancreas. Most pancreatic cysts are benign, but some are cancerous. Cystic cancers can have a better outlook (prognosis) than other types of exocrine pancreatic cancer.

Cancer of the acinar cells

The acinar cells are at the ends of the ducts that produce the pancreatic juices. These tumours are generally diagnosed at a younger age than adenocarcinomas. They are slower growing and tend to have a better outlook.

 

Endocrine pancreatic tumours

Endocrine tumours are uncommon. They start in the endocrine pancreas, where insulin and other hormones are made and released directly into the bloodstream. They are also called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (PNETS) or islet cell tumours. 

About a third of these tumours produce hormones, which can cause some strange symptoms. Most of these tumours are non cancerous (benign). They are named after the hormone they produce

Two thirds of pancreatic endocrine tumours are called non functioning tumours as they do not produce any hormones or symptoms. Most of these tumours are cancer (malignant). 

Endocrine pancreatic tumours are treated differently to exocrine tumours and generally have a much better outlook (prognosis) than adenocarcinoma of the pancreas.

 

Other rare types of pancreatic cancers

There are other rare types of cancer of the pancreas. Doctors usually treat them in a different way to the most common type of pancreatic cancer. The different types include

Pancreatoblastoma

These are very rare tumours, that mainly occur in children. They are sometimes linked with rare genetic conditions called Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). The main treatments are surgery, chemotherapy and possibly radiotherapy. The most common chemotherapy drugs doctors use are cisplatin and doxorubicin.

Sarcomas of the pancreas

These are cancers of the connective tissue holding together the cells of the pancreas. They are extremely rare. The main treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. There is more information about treatment in the section about soft tissue sarcomas.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. As the lymphatic system runs throughout the body, it can develop anywhere. There is more about the treatment of lymphoma in the section on treating non Hodgkin lymphoma.

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Updated: 24 May 2014