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 3 parts of the pancreas

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.


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.


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 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
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