Pancreatic cancer arises when cells in the pancreas, a glandular organ behind the stomach, begin to multiply out of control and form a mass. These cancerous cells have the ability to invade other parts of the body. There are a number of types of pancreatic cancer. The most common, pancreatic adenocarcinoma, accounts for about 90% of cases, and the term "pancreatic cancer" is sometimes used to refer only to that type. These adenocarcinomas start within the part of the pancreas which makes digestive enzymes. Several other types of cancer, which collectively represent the majority of the non-adenocarcinomas, can also arise from these cells. One to two percent of cases of pancreatic cancer are neuroendocrine tumors, which arise from the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas. These are generally less aggressive than pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
Signs and symptoms of the most-common form of pancreatic cancer may include yellow skin, abdominal or back pain, unexplained weight loss, light-colored stools, dark urine, and loss of appetite. There are usually no symptoms in the disease's early stages, and symptoms that are specific enough to suggest pancreatic cancer typically do not develop until the disease has reached an advanced stage. By the time of diagnosis, pancreatic cancer has often spread to other parts of the body.
Pancreatic cancer rarely occurs before the age of 40, and more than half of cases of pancreatic adenocarcinoma occur in those over 70. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include tobacco smoking, obesity, diabetes, and certain rare genetic conditions. About 25% of cases are linked to smoking, and 5–10% are linked to inherited genes. Pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed by a combination of medical imaging techniques such as ultrasound or computed tomography, blood tests, and examination of tissue samples (biopsy). The disease is divided into stages, from early (stage I) to late (stage IV). Screening the general population has not been found to be effective.
The risk of developing pancreatic cancer is lower among non-smokers, and people who maintain a healthy weight and limit their consumption of red or processed meat. A smoker's chance of developing the disease decreases if they stop smoking and almost returns to that of the rest of the population after 20 years. Pancreatic cancer can be treated with surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, palliative care, or a combination of these. Treatment options are partly based on the cancer stage. Surgery is the only treatment that can cure pancreatic adenocarcinoma, and may also be done to improve quality of life without the potential for cure. Pain management and medications to improve digestion are sometimes needed. Early palliative care is recommended even for those receiving treatment that aims for a cure.
In 2015, pancreatic cancers of all types resulted in 411,600 deaths globally. Pancreatic cancer is the fifth most-common cause of death from cancer in the United Kingdom, and the third most-common in the United States. The disease occurs most often in the developed world, where about 70% of the new cases in 2012 originated. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma typically has a very poor prognosis: after diagnosis, 25% of people survive one year and 5% live for five years. For cancers diagnosed early, the five-year survival rate rises to about 20%. Neuroendocrine cancers have better outcomes; at five years from diagnosis, 65% of those diagnosed are living, though survival varies considerably depending on the type of tumor.
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of death from cancer in the USA. It is often fatal because symptoms usually do not appear until the disease is advanced and the cancer has spread throughout the body. Obese people are 72% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than people who have a normal body mass index. Another major risk factor for pancreatic cancer is cigarette smoking, which accounts for an estimated 25% of all cases.