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Overview

Pancreatic cancer begins in the oblong-shaped organ behind the stomach that is shaped somewhat like a fish. The exocrine cells and endocrine cells of the pancreas form different tumors with distinct risk factors and outlooks. Exocrine tumors are by far the most common.

Pancreatic malignancies are in a group known as gastrointestinal (GI) cancers, and Wilmot offers the largest team of GI specialists in the Finger Lakes region. We perform more pancreatic cancer surgeries than any other place in upstate New York. Wilmot also offers the most advanced treatments and technology, including clinical trials testing the latest therapies.

Pancreatic cancer types

  • Pancreatic adenocarcinoma comprises about 95 percent of exocrine tumors, and usually begins in the ducts of the organ.
  • Less-common exocrine tumors include squamous cell carcinomas, adenosquamous carcinomas, rignet cell carcinomas, and solid pseudopapillary neoplasms, which are slow-growing and usually occur in young women.
  • Tumors of the endocrine pancreas make up less than 4% of all pancreatic cancers. They are sometimes known as pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors or “zebra” cancers because of their rarity. About half of this subtype makes hormones that are released in the blood and are therefore called “functioning” tumors. Non-functioning endocrine tumors can become large before they are found. Wilmot Cancer Institute treats many patients with neuroendocrine tumors who travel from long distances to seek our expertise. This type of cancer is slow-growing and therefore people can live with these tumors for many years before they are detected.

Pancreatic cancer facts

An estimated 49,000 people annually are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Rates have been fairly stable in recent years.

Causes and risk factors

Tobacco, obesity, and having diabetes are the largest risk factors. The average lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer is 1 in 67.

In addition to cigarette smoking and being overweight, carrying extra weight in the midsection may be a risk factor even for people who are not overweight. Workplace exposures to dyes, pesticides, and chemicals may also boost the risk.

Pancreatic cancer has many risk factors that cannot be changed. They include getting older (the average age at diagnosis is 71), being male (men are 30% more likely to be diagnosed than women), race (African American are more likely to get it) and family history. Inherited gene changes are also a risk factor. For example, mutations in the breast cancer gene, BRCA2, are linked to pancreatic cancer, as are mutations in the genes MLH1 and MSH2, which are linked to Lynch Syndrome. 

Pancreatic cancer is also more common in people who have type 2 diabetes. It is unclear if the risk is associated with being overweight (since many people with adult-onset, type 2 diabetes are overweight), or if the cancer itself causes the diabetes. Chronic pancreatitis also boosts the risk, especially in smokers.

Prevention

Scientists don't know the exact cause of pancreatic cancer so it's difficult to prevent it. But quitting smoking can substantially lower the risk.

The role of diet and exercise is unclear in preventing pancreatic cancer. Some studies have linked a diet high in red meats and processed meats, and heavy use of alcohol, with pancreatic cancer. But the exact role of diet is still under study. In general, eating more plant-based foods, staying active, and maintaining a healthy weight is suggested for cancer prevention.