Anatomy of the Pancreas

The pancreas is a gland behind the stomach and in front of the spine. It is about 6 inches long. One end is wide and tapers to a narrow tail at the other end. The wide end is called the head. The middle is called the body. The narrow end is called the tail.

The pancreas makes digestive juices and hormones. These two substances help your body break down the food you eat and turn it into the energy your body needs.

Pancreatic juices contain chemicals called enzymes that help you digest food. These enzymes are made in exocrine cells. (Most pancreatic cancers start in the exocrine cells.) The pancreas releases these juices when they are needed during meals. These juices enter your intestine through tubes called ducts.

The main pancreatic duct is at the head of the pancreas. It joins the common bile duct which comes from the liver and gallbladder. The juices from the pancreas, and other substances from the liver and gallbladder mix together. The merged ducts open into the first part of the small intestine, called the duodenum. In the duodenum, the juices help break down fats, sugars, and proteins from the food you eat.

Hormones are chemicals that help your body control how it works. The pancreatic endocrine cells are arranged in small clumps called islets of Langerhans. They make many hormones, including insulin and glucagon. These hormones help your body use and store the energy created from the food you eat. A small number of all pancreatic cancers are found in endocrine cells. Because they are less common and treatment varies widely, endocrine cancers are not discussed here.