Pancreatic Cancer Types

Just as cancer can affect nearly any part of the body, so too can it affect any part of the pancreas. However, in about 95 percent of all pancreatic cancer cases, patients suffer from adenocarcinomas, tumors that grow in the enzyme-producing duct cells of the pancreas.

Because this type of tumor affects the pancreas’ secretion ducts, adenocarcinoma, as well as pancreatic cancer itself, is also referred to as exocrine cancer (Exocrine describes any gland that uses secretion ducts to dispel discharge).

Uncommonly, tumors develop in other areas of the pancreas, such as the islet cells, pancreatic cells that produce insulin. Depending on which islet cells tumors develop, the pancreas will start overproducing either glucagons (hormones that metabolize carbohydrates) or insulin (hormones that metabolize sugar).

Another uncommon type of pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells arise in the ampulla of Vater, the area in which the bile and pancreatic ducts meet the small intestine. Because the bile duct is directly affected in this type of pancreatic cancer, symptoms (such as jaundice, the yellowing of the skin and eyes) typically arise immediately.

In this section, we will discuss the various types of pancreatic cancer. Our articles will outline the symptoms, prognoses and treatment options available for different types of pancreatic cancer. As you learn about various forms of pancreatic cancer, keep in mind that tumors are classified based on their location in the pancreas, as well as whether or not they are malignant (i.e. cancerous).

About Benign Pancreatic Tumors

The term “benign” refers to any substance that isn’t harmful or life-threatening. When referring to tumors, benign describes tumors that are non-cancerous. Most cases of benign pancreatic tumors occur as cystic tumors, growths that develop within a cyst’s membrane.

However, while cystic tumors such as mucinous cystadenoma and serous cystadenoma are typically harmless, the cystic tumor known as mucinous ductal ectasia is marked by a linking of potentially malignant cells that can eventually lead to the development of pancreatic cancer.

Symptoms of benign pancreatic tumors are nearly identical to those of the malignant type:

  • abdominal pain
  • back pain
  • digestive problems
  • nausea.

As a result, doctors use the same diagnostic procedures to evaluate whether or not a growth is a benign pancreatic tumor.

Malignant Pancreatic Tumors

Cancerous pancreatic tumors are referred to as malignant. Unfortunately, once a person starts to feel the symptoms of malignant pancreatic tumors, the pancreatic cancer has generally advanced to later stages, in which it is highly likely that cancer has spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body.

Because malignant pancreatic tumors are usually diagnosed after the cancer has progressed into later stages, the prognosis for malignant pancreatic tumors is disheartening: Less than 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients survive more than a year after their diagnosis.

As a result, living a healthy lifestyle, understanding the symptoms and getting regular physical exams is the best way to prevent the development of malignant pancreatic tumors.

Neuroendocrine Tumors of the Pancreas

Neuroendocrine tumors, also referred to as endocrine pancreatic tumors (EPTs), are malignant growths that arise in the islet cells of the pancreas. Making up less than 2 percent of all pancreatic cancer cases, neuroendocrine tumors are far less deadly than the most common type of pancreatic cancer, namely adenocarcinomas.

In general, doctors diagnose neuroendocrine pancreatic tumors using the same tests as they do for diagnosing adenocarcinomas. Surgery is typically the best treatment option for neuroendocrine tumors of the pancreas.

Resources

Center for Pancreatic and Biliary Diseases (n.d.). Cystic Tumors of the Pancreas. Retrieved October 19, 2007 from the USC Department of Surgery Web site: http://www.surgery.usc.edu/divisions/tumor/pancreasdiseases/web pages/pancreas cancer/cystic tumors.html.

Mayo Clinic (updated October 4, 2006). Pancreatic Cancer. Retrieved October 19, 2007 from the Mayo Clinic Web site: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/pancreatic-cancer/DS00357/DSECTION=1.