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What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is a gland that produces digestive juices and hormones. Pancreatic cancer is when abnormal cells in the pancreas start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way and forms a growth (tumour).

Over time, the cells can eventually grow into surrounding blood vessels or organs such as the small bowel (duodenum). And the cancer cells may spread to other areas of the body.

The pancreas

The pancreas is part of the 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 your abdomen. It lies across your body where your ribs meet at the bottom of your breastbone, just behind your stomach. It is about 6 inches (15 centimetres) long and shaped like a leaf. 

The pancreas has 3 parts:

  • the wide end is called the head
  • the thin end is called the tail
  • the bit in the middle is called the body
Diagram showing the close up detail of the position of the liver, gallbladder and pancreas in the body.

The pancreas is a large gland that makes digestive juices and insulin. The juices flow down a tube (pancreatic duct) into the duodenum. The duodenum is the first part of the small bowel and is joined to the stomach.

Another tube (duct) joins the duodenum. The bile duct comes down from the gallbladder and liver and joins the duodenum right next to the pancreatic duct. The place where the two ducts join and meet the bowel is called the ampulla of Vater.

Diagram showing the position of the pancreatic duct in the head of the pancreas

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas produces digestive juices and insulin, as well as other hormones to do with digestion.

The part which produces the digestive juices is called the exocrine pancreas. The part which produces hormones, including insulin, is called the endocrine pancreas.

Cancers that develop from these two parts can behave differently and cause different symptoms.

What does the digestive system do?

The digestive system breaks up and digests food. After about 2 hours in the stomach, the partly digested food moves into the beginning of the duodenum.

When the food reaches the duodenum, the pancreas releases its digestive juices which flow down the pancreatic duct and mix with the food.

The juices contain enzymes that help to break down the food into very small fragments. These fragments are absorbed into the body through the small bowel.

The pancreas and insulin

The pancreas makes insulin. Insulin keeps the level of sugar in the blood at a stable level. This means that the body cells get enough food, but not too much. The pancreas makes and releases more insulin if the level of sugar in the blood is high. If the level is too low, it releases less.

You have diabetes if you don't make enough insulin.

How common is pancreatic cancer?

Around 10,300 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the UK each year. It is the 10th most common cancer in the UK.

Who gets pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is more common in older people. Almost half of all new cases are diagnosed in people aged 75 and over. Pancreatic cancer is uncommon in people under 40 years old. It occurs almost equally in men and women. 

In the past 10 years, pancreatic cancer rates have increased and it is thought they will continue to increase.

In England, pancreatic cancer is more common in people living in poorer areas. It is more common in White and Black people than in Asian people.

Last reviewed: 
14 Jul 2020

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