Pancreatic cancer arises when cells in the pancreas multiply out of control and form a mass


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 85% 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.

The many types of pancreatic cancer can be divided into two general groups. The vast majority of cases (about 95%) occur in the part of the pancreas which produces digestive enzymes, known as the exocrine component. There are several sub-types of exocrine pancreatic cancers, but their diagnosis and treatment have much in common. The small minority of cancers that arise in the hormone-producing (endocrine) tissue of the pancreas have different clinical characteristics and are called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, sometimes abbreviated as "PanNETs". Both groups occur mainly (but not exclusively) in people over 40, and are slightly more common in men, but some rare sub-types mainly occur in women or children. The exocrine group is dominated by pancreatic adenocarcinoma (variations of this name may add "invasive" and "ductal"), which is by far the most common type, representing about 85% of all pancreatic cancers. Nearly all these start in the ducts of the pancreas, as pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC).

The small minority of tumors that arise elsewhere in the pancreas are mainly pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PanNETs). Neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) are a diverse group of benign or malignant tumors that arise from the body's neuroendocrine cells, which are responsible for integrating the nervous and endocrine systems. NETs can start in most organs of the body, including the pancreas, where the various malignant types are all considered to be rare. PanNETs are grouped into 'functioning' and 'non-functioning' types, depending on the degree to which they produce hormones. The functioning types secrete hormones such as insulin, gastrin, and glucagon into the bloodstream, often in large quantities, giving rise to serious symptoms such as low blood sugar, but also favoring relatively early detection. The most common functioning PanNETs are insulinomas and gastrinomas, named after the hormones they secrete. The non-functioning types do not secrete hormones in a sufficient quantity to give rise to overt clinical symptoms. For this reason, non-functioning PanNETs are often diagnosed only after the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Drinking alcohol excessively is a major cause of chronic pancreatitis, which in turn predisposes to pancreatic cancer. However, considerable research has failed to firmly establish alcohol consumption as a direct risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Overall, the association is consistently weak and the majority of studies have found no association, with smoking a strong confounding factor. The evidence is stronger for a link with heavy drinking, of at least six drinks per day. Exocrine cancers are thought to arise from several types of precancerous lesions within the pancreas. But these lesions do not always progress to cancer, and the increased numbers detected as a by-product of the increasing use of CT scans for other reasons are not all treated. Apart from pancreatic serous cystadenomas (SCNs), which are almost always benign, four types of precancerous lesion are recognized.

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Journal of Clinical Oncology and Cancer Research,

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