Overview

About Pancreatic Cancer

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About Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells form in the tissues of the pancreas. The most common type of pancreatic cancer is pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

Signs & Symptoms

These are signs of pancreatic cancer:

  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, also known as jaundice
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark urine
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling very tired

Many other health problems can also cause these signs. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Learn more about pancreatic cancer from the National Cancer Institute. 

Image of the Pancreas

anatomical drawing of the pancreas

Anatomy of the pancreas. The pancreas has three areas: head, body, and tail. It is found in the abdomen near the stomach, intestines, and other organs.

Specialties & Treatments

The treatment or combination of treatments each patient has depends on the stage of the cancer, recommendations of the care team, and the patient’s wishes. These are the most common types of treatment for pancreatic cancer: 

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy

Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Gastrointestinal (GI) Cancers Program provides comprehensive, compassionate, state-of-the-art care for cancers of the digestive system. Our experts treat and diagnose all types of GI cancers and conditions.

Learn more about types of cancer treatments and about cancer screenings.

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Causes & Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean you are sure to get cancer. It means your chances are higher than the average person’s. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your cancer risk.

These are risk factors for pancreatic cancer:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Having a personal history of diabetes or chronic pancreatitis
  • Having a family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis
  • Having certain hereditary conditions that lead to pancreatic cancer

Learn more about ways to prevent cancer and about family history and genetic counseling.

Diagnosis & Stages

Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer

Doctors use these tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer:

  • Physical exam and history: A health care provider examines your body for signs of disease. Your personal health habits, past illnesses, and symptoms help guide the exam.
  • Laboratory tests: Through testing body tissues, blood, urine, or other substances in the body, your health care team can check to see how the liver and other organs are functioning. They can also look for substances that cells produce when cancer is present.
  • Ultrasound: This procedure uses high-energy sound waves to create a picture of the internal organs.
  • Imaging tests: Using dyes, x-rays, magnets, radio waves and/or computer technology, your health care provider can create detailed images of internal organs.
  • Other procedures: Some procedures use a combination of x-rays, scopes, needles and surgeries to look at internal organs. These include endoscopic ultrasound (EUS), percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC) and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).
  • Biopsy: The health care provider removes cell or tissue samples so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

Staging is the process that shows whether cancer has spread within or around the pancreas or to other parts of the body. Cancer spreads in the body in three ways: through tissue, the lymph system, or the blood.

These are the stages used for pancreatic cancer:

  • Stage 0: Stage 0 cancers are often called carcinoma in situ. For stage 0 pancreatic cancer, tests have found abnormal cells on the lining of the pancreas. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread.
  • Stage I (IA, IB): The cancer is in the pancreas only.
  • Stage II (IIA, IIB): The cancer has spread to nearby tissues, organs or lymph nodes.
  • Stage III: The cancer has spread to the major blood vessels near the pancreas and may have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV: The cancer has spread to distant organs such as the liver or lungs

When cancer spreads from where it started to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. These metastatic cancer cells are the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if pancreatic cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually pancreatic cancer cells. The disease is metastatic pancreatic cancer, not bone cancer.

Learn more about the stages of pancreatic cancer from the National Cancer Institute.