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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. Between 7 and 8 out of 10 pancreatic cancers (70 to 80%) 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.

Other rarer types of exocrine pancreatic cancer are cystic tumours, cancer of the acinar cells and sarcomas. The treatment for these rarer 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). 

Lymphoma of the pancreas

This is very rare and is treated differently to other types of pancreatic cancer. There is more about the treatment of lymphoma in the non Hodgkin lymphoma section.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about pancreatic cancer section.

 

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. Between 7 and 8 out of 10 pancreatic cancers (70 to 80%) are in the head of the pancreas. You have different types of surgery depending on the site of the cancer.

 

Exocrine cancers - the commonest 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. 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. The other rarer types of exocrine pancreatic cancer are

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.

Sarcomas of the pancreas

These are cancers of the connective tissue holding together the cells of the pancreas. They are very rare and most often occur in children.

 

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.

 

Lymphoma of the pancreas

This is very rare. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system of the body. As the lymphatic system runs throughout the body, it can crop up anywhere. Because it is a different type of cancer, it is treated differently to the other types of pancreatic cancer. There is more about the treatment of lymphoma in the section on treating non Hodgkin lymphoma.

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Updated: 11 December 2012