Coronavirus and cancer

We know it’s a worrying time for people with cancer, we have information to help. If you have symptoms of cancer contact your doctor.

Read our information about coronavirus and cancer

Decorative image

Types of pancreatic cancer

There are different types of cells in the pancreas. Knowing the cell type and where in the pancreas the cancer started helps your doctor plan the best treatment for you.

Cancer can start in the head, body or tail of the pancreas. The wide end of the pancreas 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.

Between 60 and 70 out of 100 pancreatic cancers (60-70%) start in the head of the pancreas. 

Exocrine pancreatic cancers

Most pancreatic cancers are the exocrine type. This means that they start in cells that produce pancreatic digestive juices.

Adenocarcinomas

More than 80 out of 100 exocrine pancreatic cancers (more than 80%) are adenocarcinomas. Nearly all of these are ductal adenocarcinomas. They start in the cells lining the ducts of the pancreas.

Rarer types

Rarer types of exocrine pancreatic cancer include:

Cystic tumours

Cystic tumours cause a cyst or fluid filled sac in the pancreas. Most pancreatic cysts are not cancerous (they are benign) but some are cancerous (malignant). 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 pancreatic juices. These tumours are generally diagnosed in people 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.

Other rare types of pancreatic cancer

There are other rare types of cancer of the pancreas. They are treated differently to the more common types of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatoblastoma

These very rare tumours mainly occur in children. They are sometimes linked with rare genetic conditions called Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).

Sarcomas of the pancreas

These are cancers of the connective tissue that hold together the cells of the pancreas. They are extremely rare.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. As the lymphatic system runs throughout the body, these tumours can develop in any part of the body.

Last reviewed: 
21 Nov 2019
  • Cancer of the Pancreas: European Society Medical Oncology Clinical Practice Guidelines
    M Ducreux and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2015, Volume 26, Supplement, v56-v68

  • Pancreatic cancer
    A Vincent and others
    The Lancet, 2011, Vol 378, Issue 9791, Pages 607–620

  • Pancreatic adenocarcinoma
    G Bond-Smith and others
    British Medical Journal, 2012, Volume 344, e2476

  • Textbook of uncommon cancers (5th edition)
    D Raghavan, MS Ahluwalia, C Blanke and others
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2017

  • Primary sarcoma of the pancreas, a rare histopathological entity. A case report with review of literature
    P Ambe and others
    World Journal of Surgical Oncology. 2011, Volume 9, Issue 85

  • Leiomyosarcoma arising in the pancreatic duct: a case report and review of the current literature
    ND Riddle and others
    Case Reports in Medicine, 2010

Information and help