Understanding Pancreatic Cancer: What Is Pancreatic Cancer?


To understand pancreatic cancer, it’s first important to understand what cancer is: basically, the production of abnormal cells.

The body is programmed to routinely replenish cells in different organs. As normal cells age or get damaged, they die off. New cells take their place. This is what’s supposed to happen. Abnormal cell growth refers to a buildup of extra cells. This happens when:

  • New cells form even though the body doesn’t need them or
  • Old, damaged cells don’t die off.

These extra cells slowly accumulate to form a tissue mass, lump, or growth called a tumor. These abnormal cells can destroy normal body tissue and spread through the bloodstream and lymphatic system.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), there were about 53,070 new cases of pancreatic cancer in the U.S. in 2016. To understand pancreatic cancer, it’s helpful to know a little more about the pancreas.

Your pancreas has 2 different kinds of glands:

  • Exocrine: These glands make fluids with enzymes. These break down the fats and proteins in foods. Most cells in the pancreas are exocrine.
  • Endocrine: These glands are arranged in clusters called islets. Their job is to make hormones.

Most endocrine tumors are benign. These are also called islet cell or neuroendocrine tumors.

Benign vs. Malignant: What’s the Difference?

Benign means not cancerous. A benign tumor can get larger but does not spread to other tissues or organs.

Malignant means cancerous. A malignant tumor’s cells can invade nearby tissue, lymph nodes and spread to other organs. These cells are destructive.

Benign tumors:

  • Can be removed
  • Usually don’t grow back
  • Are rarely fatal
  • Don’t spread to other tissues or body parts


Malignant tumors:

  • Can often be removed
  • Sometimes grow back
  • Can invade other tissues and organs and cause damage
  • Can spread to other body parts
  • Can be fatal

Both endocrine and exocrine cells can make tumors. Tumors in the exocrine glands are more common. Almost all of these are adenocarcinomas.

To better understand what an adenocarcinoma is, let’s look at the word. Adeno means gland. Carcinoma is a malignant tumor.

Ampullary cancer is a special kind of exocrine tumor. It starts where the bile duct and pancreatic duct dump into your small intestine. This cancer causes yellowing of skin and eyes, so it’s usually caught earlier. This gives it a higher cure rate.

Next: How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed? 

Back to “Understanding Pancreatic Cancer: An Introduction”