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Pancreatic Cancer: Introduction

The pancreatic cancer program at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta, GA offers advanced treatments for pancreatic cancer patients (including gastrointestinal cancer) in Georgia and the Southeast.

Pancreatic Cancer Questions and Appointments

Contact us for more information about our pancreatic cancer treatment programs.

What is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is an oblong organ that lies behind the stomach and extends across the abdomen.

The shape of the pancreas resembles a letter “J” lying on its side with the hook pointing down.

The pancreas plays an important role in digestion with specialized cells that correspond to the pancreas' two main functions: exocrine functions and endocrine functions. Exocrine cells are linked to a duct system and produce digestive enzymes that are secreted into the duodenum during digestion. Endocrine cells secrete hormones such as insulin and glucagon in order to help regulate metabolism and balance the amount of sugar in the blood.

During digestion, the epithelial lining of the small intestine releases the hormones secretin and cholecystokinin (CCK). These two hormones stimulate the production of digestive enzymes by the pancreatic exocrine cells. This combination of digestive juices flows through the pancreatic duct system into the duodenum to aid in the digestion process. Most pancreatic tumors form in the exocrine epithelial cells.

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

A pancreatic cancer type is based on the location of the tumor's origin within the pancreas.

More than 95 percent of pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas of the exocrine pancreas. Tumors of the endocrine pancreas are much less common and most are benign.

What are the Types of Cancer of the Pancreas?

  • Acinar Cell Cancers: Acinar cell cancers are tumors that form on the ends of the pancreatic ducts.
  • Adenocarcinoma: An adenocarcinoma is a cancer that begins in the cells that line certain internal organs and have secretory properties. In the pancreas, this is a cancer of the exocrine cells that line the pancreatic ducts.
  • Cystic Tumors: Cystic tumors derive their name from the presence of fluid filled sacs within the pancreas. The fluid is produced by the lining of abnormal tissues or tumors. These tumors may lead to cancer in some patients; however, most cystic tumors of the pancreas are benign.
  • Sarcomas: Sarcomas are tumors that form in the connective tissue that bonds pancreatic cells together and are rare.