HealthSheets™


What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

Cancer happens when cells in the body start changing and growing out of control. These cells can form lumps called tumors. Cancer that starts in the cells of the pancreas is called pancreatic cancer.

Understanding the pancreas

The pancreas is a gland, an organ that makes substances the body needs, It's hidden in the left side of the abdomen or, behind the stomach and in front of the spine.

One of its jobs is to make pancreatic enzymes. These juices help digest food. They travel to the small intestine to help break down food. The pancreas also makes hormones, like insulin and glucagon. These help control the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood.

When pancreatic cancer forms

Pancreatic cancer forms when cells in the pancreas change and multiply in an out of control way. This cancer can change the way the pancreas works and may spread into nearby organs, like the intestines, liver, and gallbladder. Pancreatic cancer may also spread to other parts of the body. This spread is called metastasis. The more cancer spreads, the harder it is to treat.

Treatment choices for pancreatic cancer

You and your healthcare provider will discuss a treatment plan that's best for you. Treatment choices may include:

  • Surgery to remove the cancer in the pancreas and sometimes nearby tissues and organs.

  • Radiation therapy, which uses directed rays of energy to kill cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy, which uses strong drugs to kill fast-growing cells like cancer cells.

  • Immunotherapy or biologic therapy, which uses medicines that boost the body's natural immune system to fight the cancer.

  • Targeted therapy, which uses medicines made to focus on changes found only or mostly on the cancer cells to kill them and limit damage to normal cells.

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