About Pancreatic Cancer

About Pancreatic Cancer

At Penn Medicine, patients with pancreatic cancer receive their care from a multidisciplinary team of nationally recognized experts in the diagnosis, treatment and research of gastrointestinal cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that develops within the pancreas, the gland about six inches long that is responsible for making hormones, including the enzymes responsible for the digestion of food and control of blood sugar.

Pancreatic cancer develops when cells within the pancreas begin to grow out of control. It may spread, or metastasize, to nearby lymph nodes and organs such as the liver and lungs.

The pancreas has three sections:

  • Head: Part of the pancreas adjacent to the small bowel and liver ducts
  • Body: Middle of the pancreas
  • Tail: End of the pancreas near the spleen

About 90 percent or more of pancreatic cancer develops in the head of the pancreas.

Penn Medicine's multidisciplinary approach to cancer diagnosis and treatment provides better outcomes and gives patients access to the most advanced treatment, surgical techniques and clinical trials.

Because navigating a new cancer diagnosis and treatment options can be difficult, patients who wish to connect with a cancer specialist at Penn Medicine can speak with a cancer nurse, who can help them simplify entry into Penn and make an appointment with the right physician.

To connect with a cancer nurse at Penn Medicine, patients should call 800-789-PENN (7366).

Pancreatic Cancer Risk and Prevention

Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors

Risk factors affect the chance of developing pancreatic cancer. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that someone will get cancer.

There are different kinds of risk factors, and many people with risk factors never develop pancreatic cancer. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer may include:

  • Smoking. Smoking tobacco is generally the single largest risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes. People with long-standing diabetes are at a higher risk for pancreatic cancer.
  • Family history. Having a family member with pancreatic cancer or other hereditary conditions may increase the risk of developing the disease. Also, a family member with breast or colon cancer may increase someone's risk. Penn’s risk evaluation programs can help people determine their risk of developing cancer.
  • Inflammation of the pancreas. People who have chronic pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, for a long period of time may be at an increased. risk. Inflammation is often linked to smoking and excessive use of alcohol.
  • Obesity. Studies show people who are overweight or obese may be at an increased risk for developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Age. Most people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are over age 65.

Pancreatic Cancer Prevention

Pancreatic Cancer Risk Assessment

The Gastrointestinal Cancer Risk Evaluation Program at Penn Medicine offers knowledge about the presence of genetic risk factors for pancreatic cancer and provides patients with important, sometimes life-saving options.

Patients at increased risk for pancreatic cancer, or those who have a family history of pancreatic, colon or breast cancer, may benefit from meeting with a cancer risk assessment counselor.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

All types of pancreatic cancer begin when abnormal cells grow out of control in the pancreas. Most pancreas cancers develop in the head of the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer tumors may also be classified into two groups:

  • Exocrine pancreatic tumors
  • Endocrine pancreatic tumors

Exocrine Pancreatic Tumors

Exocrine pancreatic tumors begin in the exocrine cells. The exocrine cells are responsible for secreting enzymes that aid in digestion and absorption of nutrients. About 95 percent of pancreatic cancers are classified as exocrine.

Endocrine Pancreatic Tumors

Endocrine pancreatic tumors are very rare and account for about 5 percent of pancreatic cancer. Also called neuroendocrine tumors, these tumors begin in the endocrine cells, which in some cases are responsible for producing hormones, including those that control blood sugar.

Endocrine pancreatic tumors may be classified as non-functioning or functioning. Functioning tumors secrete hormones and non-functioning tumors do not.

Learn more about endocrine pancreatic tumors (neuroendocrine tumors).

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Because the early stages of pancreatic cancer do not cause symptoms, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed at a later stage, when treatment options are limited.

During the later stages of pancreatic cancer, the follow symptoms may be present:

  • Dark urine, pale stools and jaundice (skin and whites of eyes have a yellowish tint)
  • Weight loss without dieting
  • Loss of appetite, or feeling of fullness
  • Pain in the upper area of the stomach and back
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in the middle of the back that doesn’t go away
  • Depression

Staging Pancreatic Cancer

Staging systems provide doctors with a common language for describing tumors. After cancer is first diagnosed, a series of tests are used to investigate the extent of the cancer and to see whether it has spread to other parts of the body from where it started. Staging is a way of recording the size and growth of a cancer, and determining the plan for treatment. By understanding the stage of their cancer, patients can make informed decisions about their treatment.

Staging pancreatic cancer attempts to discover the following:

  • The size of the pancreatic tumor.
  • Whether the tumor has spread to nearby tissues.
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment at Penn

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, patients at the Abramson Cancer Center may be evaluated through the Gastrointestinal Cancer Evaluation Center (GICEC). The center provides patients with expert support and evaluation to discuss treatment options and individualized treatment plans.

ADAM Images

Patients with pancreatic cancer are treated by a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists who see more patients with gastrointestinal (GI) cancers in one year than many doctors see in their careers.

Cancer specialists in the Abramson Cancer Center's gastrointestinal cancer program are nationally recognized for their expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Penn’s GI cancer treatment team includes:

  • Nationally recognized medical experts with years of experience in diagnosing and treating GI cancer.
  • Nurses with advanced training and experience in gastrointestinal cancer.
  • Oncology Navigation Specialists to help patients navigate the health system.
  • Registered dietitians to provide nutrition counseling.
  • Cancer counselors to provide individual or family counseling for issues many cancer patients face.
  • Rehabilitation therapists who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of physical effects from cancer and its treatment.

Patients at Penn Medicine can benefit from participating in clinical trials that take place at Penn. Patients interested in learning more about clinical trials should speak with someone on their treatment team.

Oncology Navigation Specialists

Every step of cancer treatment – from a cancer diagnosis, to surgery and treatment to forming a survivorship plan – comes with different needs and issues that should be addressed.

Oncology Navigation Specialists at the Abramson Cancer Center are available to make a patient’s experience as seamless as possible. As experts in navigating complex health care situations, patient support specialists serve as a consistent point of contact and a reliable source for advice, support and direction for patients and families. They can help in a variety of ways including; provide emotional support, identify resources, and ensure access to information, support services, educational programs and community resources.

Learn more about Patient Navigation specialists at the Abramson Cancer Center.

Penn Pancreatic and Biliary Center

Patients at Penn Medicine with pancreatic cancer also benefit from the Penn Pancreatic and Biliary Center, one of the busiest pancreatic surgery programs in the United States.

Studies have shown successful treatment of pancreatic cancer requires accurate diagnosis and cancer surgeons who are experienced in complex pancreatic surgeries. The center combines that expertise with leading-edge research and technology, giving patients at Penn Medicine a better chance for positive outcomes.

The pancreatic cancer team is nationally recognized for its specialized techniques in treating pancreatic cancer, and is part of the multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists at the Abramson Cancer Center.

Learn more about the Penn Pancreatic and Biliary Center.  

Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer

An accurate cancer diagnosis from trusted cancer specialists is the first step in getting personalized treatment options to treat pancreatic cancer.

Patients who choose Penn's Abramson Cancer Center, benefit from a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists including gastroenterologists, radiologists, pathologists and surgeons who work together to provide both a diagnosis and treatment plan individualized for each patient with pancreatic cancer.

Cancer specialists at Penn Medicine are highly experienced in using the most advanced techniques for diagnosing pancreatic cancer and are actively researching better and more precise ways to detect pancreatic cancer.

Because an accurate diagnosis is an important step in planning cancer treatment, it's important patients know that when they come to Penn Medicine, they are taking an important step in getting the best cancer treatment.

Navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment options can be difficult, patients who wish to connect with a cancer specialist at Penn Medicine can speak with a cancer nurse, who can help them make an appointment with the right person. Penn Medicine's contact center has experienced cancer nurses available and ready to guide patients in finding the cancer specialist right for them.

To connect with a cancer nurse at Penn Medicine, patients should call 800-789-PENN (7366).

Read more Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic Cancer Treatments

Following the diagnosis and staging of pancreatic cancer, cancer specialists at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center develop a personalized treatment plan. Penn's treatment options for pancreatic cancer include:

  • Surgery
    • Whipple procedure
    • Pylorus-sparing Whipple
    • Total pancreatectomy
    • Distal pancreatectomy
    • Enucleation (for certain rare types of cancer)
  • Palliative surgery
    • Surgical biliary drainage
    • Endoscopic stent placement for bilary drainage
    • Endonsocoic stent placement for gastric outlet obstuction
    • Surgical gastrojejunostomy
  • Radiation therapy
    • Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy
    • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)
    • Proton therapy
    • Volumetric-modulated arc therapy (VMAT)
  • Chemotherapy and biologic therapies
    • Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)
  • Clinical trials
  • Other treatments
    • Integrative medicine and wellness
    • Palliative care
    • Penn Home Care and Hospice

Because navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment options can be difficult, patients who wish to connect with a cancer specialist at Penn Medicine can speak with a cancer nurse, who can help them make an appointment with the correct cancer specialist.

To connect with a cancer nurse at Penn Medicine, patients should call 800-789-PENN.

Read more Pancreatic Cancer Treatments

Pancreatic Cancer Survivorship

Survivorship programs at Penn Medicine are a distinct phase of pancreatic cancer care and are designed to help patients' transition from their cancer treatment routine to a post-cancer care lifestyle. There are more than 12 million cancer survivors living and thriving today as a result of advances in cancer treatment. However, cancer treatments can result in physical, emotional and financial complications long after the therapy is complete.

Read more Pancreatic Cancer Survivorship

Stand Up to Cancer

Peter O'Dwyer, MD, professor of Hematology-Oncology and program director of Development Therapeutics in the Abramson Cancer Center, was interviewed on NBC10's 10! Show about Penn's work as part of the Stand Up to Cancer Dream Team... Read more

Clinical Trials

Pancreatic Cancer Trials

A Phase I/II/Pharmacodynamic Study of Hydroxychloroquine in Combination With Gemcitabine/Abraxane to... more