Pancreatic Cancer: The Basics

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed: October 31, 2023

The pancreas is a gland that makes hormones such as insulin. Hormones help your body work. Pancreatic cancer is caused by cells in the pancreas growing out of control. As the number of cells grows, they form a tumor.

Pancreatic cancer that has spread from the pancreas to another part of the body is called metastatic cancer.


Risks are:

  • Smoking.
  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Having high blood sugar or weighing more than you should.
  • Working as a chemist, and working with coal, gas, or metal.

Signs of Pancreatic Cancer

Signs of pancreatic cancer start after the cancer has grown and spread to other parts of the body. Some signs may be:

  • Losing weight or not feeling hungry.
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (called jaundice).
  • Pain in the upper part of the belly or back.
  • Feeling weak.
  • Feeling sick to your stomach and throwing up.
  • Having high blood sugar.

Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer

When your healthcare providers think you may have pancreatic cancer, they will do a full exam of your body and ask you questions about your health. They may order tests:

  • CT.
  • Ultrasound or endoscopic ultrasound.
  • If a bile duct is blocked, you may have an endoscopic retrograde cholangiography or percutaneous trans-hepatic cholangiography.
  • Blood tests.

Staging Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is "staged." Staging helps guide your treatment. This stage is based on:

  • Size and location of the tumor.
  • If there are cancer cells in the lymph nodes.
  • If there are cancer cells in other parts of the body.

Stages range from stage I (1, smallest tumors) to stage IV (4, tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, called metastatic cancer). The stage of pancreatic cancer will guide your treatment plan.


Often, these treatments are used:

  • Surgery is only for patients with small tumors who are likely to do well. Surgery is often followed by chemotherapy or radiation. Some patients have chemotherapy and radiation and then have surgery if the tumor has gotten small enough.
  • Radiation is the use of high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cell. It is used to keep the cancer from coming back (called recurrence).
  • Chemotherapy uses medications to kill cancer cells that have spread to other places in the body.

This article is a basic guide to pancreatic cancer. You can learn more about your type of pancreatic cancer and treatment by using the links below.

Pancreatic Cancer: Staging and Treatment

Surgical Procedures: Surgery and Staging for Pancreatic Cancer

Alsamarrai A, Das, S.L., Windsor, J.Aa, Petrov, M.S. (2014). Factors that affect risk for pancreatic disease in the general population: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Clinics Gastroenterol Hepatology, 12, 1635-164.

American Cancer Society. Pancreatic Cancer.

Anderson MA, Zolotarevsky E, Cooper KL, et al. (2012). Alcohol and tobacco lower the age of presentation in sporadic pancreatic cancer in a dose-dependent manner: a multicenter study. American Journal of Gastroenterology,107, 1730-1739.

Apte, M. V., & Wilson, J. S. (2016). Pancreatic cancer: A multipronged approach to pancreatic cancer treatment. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 13(7), 385-387.

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Garrido-Laguna, I., & Hidalgo, M. (2015). Pancreatic cancer: from state-of-the-art treatments to promising novel therapies. Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, 12(6), 319-334.

Gresham, G. K., Wells, G. A., Gill, S., Cameron, C., & Jonker, D. J. (2014). Chemotherapy regimens for advanced pancreatic cancer: a systematic review and network meta-analysis. BMC Cancer, 14(1), 471.

Grote, T., & Gress, T. M. (2017). EUS and Its Role in Pancreatic Cancer. Pancreatic Cancer, 1-17.

Kamisawa, T., Wood, L. D., Itoi, T., & Takaori, K. (2016). Pancreatic cancer. The Lancet, 388(10039), 73-85.

Lin, Y., Egawa, N., & Kikuchi, S. (2016). Obesity and risk of pancreatic cancer: Epidemiologic evidence and perspective. Pancreatology, 16(4), S117.

Lucenteforte,E., La Vecchia, C., Silverman, D., et al.(2012). Alcohol consumption and pancreatic cancer: a pooled analysis in the International Pancreatic Cancer Case-Control Consortium (PanC4). Annals of Oncology, 23, 374-382.

NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines, Pancreatic Cancer, 2017, retrieved from (log in required).

Neesse, A., Krug, S., Gress, T. M., Tuveson, D. A., & Michl, P. (2014). Emerging concepts in pancreatic cancer medicine: targeting the tumor stroma. OncoTargets and Therapy, 7, 33.

Paulson, A. S., Cao, H. S. T., Tempero, M. A., & Lowy, A. M. (2013). Therapeutic advances in pancreatic cancer. Gastroenterology, 144(6), 1316-1326.

Witvliet-van Nierop, J. E., Lochtenberg-Potjes, C. M., Wierdsma, N. J., Scheffer, H. J., Kazemier, G., Ottens-Oussoren, K., ... & de van der Schueren, M. A. E. (2017). Assessment of Nutritional Status, Digestion and Absorption, and Quality of Life in Patients with Locally Advanced Pancreatic Cancer. Gastroenterology Research and Practice, 2017.

Wolfgang, C. L., Herman, J. M., Laheru, D. A., Klein, A. P., Erdek, M. A., Fishman, E. K., & Hruban, R. H. (2013). Recent progress in pancreatic cancer. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 63(5), 318-348.

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