The pancreas is an oblong organ, about six inches long, located in the upper abdomen. It has two major functions: The first is to produce digestive enzymes – proteins that help digest food into the small intestine. Cells that perform this function make up the exocrine pancreas.
The second major function is to produce hormones that are secreted into the blood. These cells make up the endocrine pancreas.
The endocrine pancreas is made up of specialized cells, referred to as islets of Langerhans, that produce hormones. The most important hormone produced is insulin that helps control sugar in the blood.
Cancers that begin in islet cells are called islet cell tumors or pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors. These tumors are rare and may produce hormones that cause very low or very high blood sugars or symptoms such as stomach pain and severe diarrhea.
The exocrine pancreas is made up of ducts and acini, which are small pockets at the end of the ducts. Cells lining the ducts are the most likely to develop cancer, called ductal adenocarcinomas, the most common type of pancreatic cancer.
These two types of tumors are treated very differently.
At UCSF, we have specialists who conduct research on both types of pancreatic cancers. We have one of the few pancreas cancer research programs in the nation with a team dedicated to learning more about these tumors and developing better treatments.
Although the cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, risk factors have been identified that increase a person's chance of developing the disease. These include:
- SmokingPeople who smoke cigarettes are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers.
- AgeThe risk of pancreatic cancer increases with age. People over the age of 60 are more commonly diagnosed with the disease.
- RaceAfrican Americans are more likely than Asians, Hispanics and whites to develop pancreatic cancer.
- Chronic PancreatitisA history of chronic pancreatitis may increase the likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer.
- DiabetesSome people with diabetes are more commonly affected by pancreatic cancer. Diabetes may also be a complication or an early sign of pancreatic cancer.
- DietA diet high in fats, especially processed red meats, may increase the chance of developing pancreatic cancer.
- WeightOverweight people are more likely than others to develop pancreatic cancer.
While most cases of pancreatic cancer don't run in families, inherited conditions may increase the chance of developing pancreatic cancer.
About 5 percent to 10 percent of pancreatic cancers are considered hereditary, or related to a specific genetic mutation. Pancreatic cancer is considered to run in a family when two or more first-degree relatives – such as parents, siblings or children – have the condition. This is sometimes referred to as familial pancreatic cancer (FPC). If a person has a first-degree relative with pancreatic cancer, his or her risk is significantly greater than the average person's.
An increased risk also has been associated with a number of genetic syndromes including hereditary breast, ovarian and colon cancer and a serious type of skin cancer called familial atypical multiple mole syndrome (FAMMM).
Our Approach to Pancreatic Cancer
In the past, pancreatic cancer was often caught at a late stage, making it difficult to treat. UCSF is using new technology that helps doctors diagnose pancreatic cancer earlier, and also helps us detect cysts, tumors and other abnormal tissue that could lead to cancer if left untreated. Our advanced, customized treatments and follow-up care are saving more lives.
As home to one of the few dedicated pancreatic cancer research programs in the U.S., we're at the forefront of developing better therapies. Interested patients may have the opportunity to join clinical trials.
Awards & recognition
Best hospital in Northern California
Ranked No. 12 in the nation for cancer care
Designated comprehensive cancer center
UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.