What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the tissues of the pancreas.

Signs and Symptoms

If one or more signs and symptoms described here is present, certain exams and tests may be done to find out whether they are caused by pancreatic cancer or by something else.

Jaundice: A yellow color of the eyes and skin. It is caused by a build-up of a substance (bilirubin) that is made in the liver. At least half of all people with pancreatic cancer (and all people with ampullary cancer) have jaundice.

Pain: Pain in the belly area (abdomen) or in the middle of the back is a very common sign of advanced pancreatic cancer. Again, such pain is often caused by something else.

Weight loss: Losing weight (without trying) over a number of months is very common in patients with this cancer. They may also feel very tired and not feel like eating.

Digestive problems: If the cancer blocks the release of the pancreatic juice into the intestine, a person may not be able to digest fatty foods. Stools might appear irregular. Other problems may include nausea, vomiting, and pain that gets worse after eating.

Swollen gallbladder: The doctor may find that the gallbladder is enlarged. The doctor can sometimes feel this and see it on imaging studies.

Blood clots: Sometimes blood clots form in the veins of the legs, leading to swelling. These clots can sometimes travel to the lungs and cause breathing problems.

Fatty tissue changes: Another clue that there may be pancreatic cancer is an uneven texture of the fatty tissue under the skin. This is caused by the release of the pancreatic enzymes that digest fat.

Diabetes: Because pancreatic cancer can cause problems with blood sugar, it can (but not often) cause diabetes.


The American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates for pancreatic cancer in the United States are for 2017:

  • Estimates for pancreatic cancer in the United States for 2017 are approximately 54,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease.
  • Approximately 44,000 will die from the disease.
  • The five year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 9%.
  • The lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer for both men and women is 1 in 65.
  • Pancreatic cancer is expected to be the #2 killer of cancer-related deaths by 2020.

(Credit: American Cancer Society)

Research Funding

National Cancer Institute statistics for 2010 reveal $3,035,703,187 was donated for cancer research. Only 3% of that money was gifted to pancreatic cancer research. (Source: www.fundedresearch.cancer.gov)


There is no sure way to prevent cancer of the pancreas at this time. For now, the best advice is to avoid smoking, a major risk factor that you can change. Staying at a healthy weight, eating well, and exercising are also important.
(Source: The American Cancer Society; www.cancer.org; February 2011).