What are glucagonomas?

Glucagonomas are rare cancers that start in neuroendocrine cells of the pancreas that make the hormone glucagon. These cells are called islet cells. 

Glucagonomas usually make large amounts of glucagon. Glucagon is a hormone that raises the blood sugar levels in your body. When blood sugar levels fall, the pancreas produces glucagon. This makes the liver change glycogen into glucose (sugar). The glucose is then released into the bloodstream, which raises the blood sugar level again.

Glucagonomas are a type of gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (GEP NETs) or pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (pNETs).

The pancreas

The pancreas is part of our digestive system.

Diagram showing where the pancreas is in the body in relation to the other organs. This includes the stomach, liver, bowel and gallbladder.

The pancreas is quite high up in the tummy (abdomen). It lies across your body where the ribs meet at the bottom of the breastbone, just behind your stomach. It is about 6 inches (15 centimeters) and shaped like a leaf. 

The pancreas has 3 parts:

  • the wide part is the head
  • the thin end is the tail
  • the part in the middle is the body
Diagram showing 3 parts of the pancreas

The pancreatic duct is a tube that collects the digestive juices made by the pancreas and carries them into the first part of the bowel (duodenum).

Most glucagonomas start in the tail of the pancreas.

How common it is

Glucagonomas are very rare. Only around 2 people in every one hundred million develop a glucagonoma every year.

Around 1 out of every 100 pancreatic NETs (1%) diagnosed every year are glucagonomas.

Cancer or non cancer?

Glucagonomas are cancers. Some glucagonomas grow slowly and don't spread to other parts of the body. Others can spread to other parts of the body (metastases).

The most common places where glucagonomas spread to is the:

  • liver
  • lymph nodes
  • bones
  • lungs
Last reviewed: 
03 Aug 2021
Next review due: 
03 Aug 2024
  • Gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine neoplasms: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    M. Pavel and others
    Annals of Oncology 2020, Vol 31, Issue 5 

  • Glucagonoma and the glucagonoma syndrome
    Emily Bergsland
    UpToDate, 2021

  • Glucagonoma and the glucagonoma syndrome – cumulative experience with an elusive endocrine tumour
    R Eldor and others
    Clinical Endocrinology, 2011. Vol 74, Pages 593-598

  • Rare functioning pancreatic endocrine tumors
    D O’Toole and others
    Neuroendocrinology, 2006. Vol 84, Pages 189-195

  • Population-based study of islet cell carcinoma
    J Yao and others
    Annals of Surgical Oncology, 2007. Vol 14, Issue 12, Pages 3492-3500

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