Pancreatic Cancer


Although pancreatic cancer affects far fewer people than other types of cancer, it’s still a leading cause of cancer death. You can take steps to reduce your overall risk of pancreatic cancer. By talking to your Mercy doctor as soon as you experience unusual pain, you can increase your chances of catching pancreatic cancer before it spreads to other parts of your body. 

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a very aggressive form of digestive cancer. If cells within your pancreas begin to grow abnormally, they can form a cancerous tumor. According to the American Cancer Society, the average lifetime risk of someone developing pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 64. 

Many people who have pancreatic cancer don’t show outward symptoms until their cancer has already spread beyond the pancreas. The sooner you begin treatment for pancreatic cancer, the greater your chances of survival.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

There are two main types of cells within your pancreas: exocrine cells and endocrine cells. Each cell type can form its own type of cancer with its own risk factors, symptoms, diagnostic methods, treatments and therapies. 

Exocrine Pancreatic Cancer

Exocrine cancer forms in the exocrine cells, which is where enzymes that help digest food are made. Exocrine pancreatic cancers make up about 95% of all cancers of the pancreas. There are many types including:  

  • Pancreatic adenocarcinoma - represents about 95% of cancers of the exocrine pancreas. These kinds of cancers usually begin to develop in the ducts of the pancreas, but sometimes will occur in the cells that form pancreatic enzymes.
  • Acinar cell carcinoma - this kind of rare and malignant tumor represents about 1% of all pancreatic tumors.
  • Solid pseudopapillary neoplasm - also known as a Frantz tumor, solid pseudopapillary tumors are more common in women than in men.
  • Ampullary cancer -this type of cancer begins in the ampulla of Vater, which is where the pancreatic duct and the bile duct meet. While ampullary cancer isn’t technically considered a type. of pancreatic cancer, it’s generally treated in a similar manner.
  • Pancreatoblastoma - this rare type of pancreatic cancer most commonly affects children and is extremely rare in adults.

Endocrine Pancreatic Cancer 

On rare occasions, pancreatic cancer can develop in the endocrine cells, which are responsible for making and releasing hormones into the bloodstream. This type of cancer is known as a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor or pancreatic NET. Pancreatic NETs are managed differently than exocrine pancreatic cancers. If you develop one of these tumors, your Mercy doctor will discuss your treatment options with you. 

Pancreatic Cancer Causes

While the exact cause of pancreatic cancer isn’t known, cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on and off the genes that help cells grow, divide and stay alive. People can inherit certain gene mutations from their parents which increases their risk of developing pancreatic cancer. 

Risk Factors 

Age & Gender

Men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women. This may be due to higher tobacco use, which raises their risk. The risk of pancreatic cancer increases as we age. Nearly all patients of pancreatic cancer are older than age 45, and the average age of diagnosis is 70.

Tobacco Use

The risk of contracting pancreatic cancer is nearly two times as high among smokers compared to non-smokers. Nearly one-fourth of all pancreatic cancers are thought to be caused by tobacco use.


People who are obese or overweight are thought to be 20% more likely to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Chemical Exposure

Increased exposure to workplace chemicals, specifically used in dry cleaning or metalworking industries, may make a person more susceptible to pancreatic cancer. Gene mutations can develop as a result of exposure to these cancer-causing chemicals, and be passed down from generation to generation.

Chronic Pancreatitis

People who have a history of heavy alcohol or tobacco use may develop chronic pancreatitis, long-term inflammation of the pancreas, which carries with it an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

Inherited Gene Mutations

Inherited gene mutations can pass from generation to generation. Some of these mutations cause as many as 10% of pancreatic cancers.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Signs of pancreatic cancer don’t usually develop until cancer has advanced, spreading to other parts of the body. The signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer can vary depending on the type of pancreatic tumor present. See your Mercy doctor if you are experiencing symptoms that persist or don’t get better over time.

Exocrine Pancreatic Symptoms

Exocrine pancreatic symptoms include: 

  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
  • Dark urine
  • Light-colored or greasy stools
  • Pain in the abdomen or back
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Enlarged gallbladder or liver
  • Blood clots (especially in the legs)

Neuroendocrine Tumor Symptoms

Symptoms of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) can vary but may include: 

  • Excess stomach acid that leads to stomach ulcers
  • Diarrhea
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Red rash with swelling and blisters
  • Low blood sugar
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
Diagnosis & Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer

If you’re experiencing symptoms of pancreatic cancer, it can be both physically and emotionally overwhelming. Mercy is here to help. 

Learn about pancreatic cancer diagnosis and treatment options.

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