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What is pancreatic cancer?

To explain what pancreatic cancer is, we have to explain what the pancreas is and what that organ does.

The pancreas is an elongated organ of about 15 cm and is located in the abdomen. The pancreas consists of three parts: the head, the body, and the tail. The head is the widest part, and the tail the narrowest. The pancreas is surrounded by the stomach, small intestine, liver, spleen, and gallbladder.

pancreas and pancreatic cancer

The pancreas has two important functions

  1. Production of enzymes that are important for food digestion (mainly fats). This function is also known as the pancreatic exocrine function.
  2. Production of hormones, which are involved in the regulation of sugar levels in the blood (e.g. insulin). This is better known as the pancreatic endocrine function.

How does cancer develop?

The basic units of life in the body are known as cells. Every cell carries genetic information, also known as DNA. DNA contains all the instructions for proper growth and function of every cell in the body.

Damaged DNA, also known as a mutation,  can be the result of spontaneous or natural mutations such as cell division and heredity, or risk factors such as smoking, obesity, radiation or alcohol consumption. Mutations are normally repaired, but when mutated cells escape the repair mechanism, an accumulation of multiple mutations may occur.

Different types of tumors

This accumulation of mutations, resulting in extra cells, can form a tissue mass, also called a tumor. A tumor can either be benign or malignant. Malignant tumors are characterized by uncontrolled cell division and the ability to invade surrounding tissues. A malignant tumor is also known as cancer. Each type of cancer has its own characteristics.

The location where the cancer cells first appear, determines the type of cancer (primary tumor). Cancer cells can also spread through blood or lymph nodes to infiltrate other organs in the body. There they form new malignant tumors, also known as metastases (secondary tumor).

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer starts when abnormal cells divide unimpeded and form a tumor in the pancreas. Common sites for secondary pancreatic tumors include the lymph nodes, liver, peritoneum, and lungs.

A distinction is made between two groups of cancer;

  • the exocrine tumors
  • the neuroendocrine tumors.
 

93% of exocrine tumors are adenocarcinomas and develop in the ducts of the pancreas. Digestive juices from the pancreas enter the small intestine through these ducts. An adenocarcinoma usually starts in the head of the pancreas (66.7%).

Tumors that develop in the cells that mainly produce hormones (neuroendocrine tumors) are much rarer than adenocarcinomas and develop less aggressively. Other types of cancer such as acinar cell carcinoma or an Hamoudi tumor are extremely rare.