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The pancreas

The pancreas is a long, flat gland about 13–15 cm long that lies between your stomach and spine. It is divided into three main parts:

  • the large rounded end, called the head of the pancreas
  • the middle part, known as the body
  • the narrow end, called the tail.

A tube called the pancreatic duct connects the pancreas to the first part of the small bowel (duodenum). Another tube, called the common bile duct, joins with the pancreatic duct and connects the liver and gall bladder to the duodenum.

What the pancreas does

The pancreas has two main jobs. It makes digestive juices (known as its exocrine function) and hormones (its endocrine function).

Exocrine function – The pancreas is part of the digestive system, which helps the body digest food and turn it into energy. Exocrine cells make pancreatic enzymes, which are digestive juices. The pancreatic duct carries these juices from the pancreas into the duodenum, where they help to break down food. Most of the pancreas is made up of exocrine tissue.

Endocrine function – The pancreas is also part of the endocrine system, a group of glands that makes the body’s hormones. Endocrine cells in the pancreas make hormones that control blood sugar levels, the amount of acid produced by the stomach, and how quickly food is absorbed. For example, the hormone insulin decreases the level of sugar in the blood, while the hormone glucagon increases it.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed February 2022 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Benjamin Loveday, Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary (HPB) Surgeon, Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Katherine Allsopp, Palliative Medicine Physician, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Hollie Bevans, Senior Dietitian, Radiotherapy and Oncology, Western Health, VIC; Dr Lorraine Chantrill, Head of Department Medical Oncology, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District, NSW; Amanda Maxwell, Consumer; Prof Michael Michael, Medical Oncologist, Lower and Upper GI Oncology Service, Co-Chair Neuroendocrine Unit, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and University of Melbourne, VIC; Dr Andrew Oar, Radiation Oncologist, Icon Cancer Centre, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Meg Rogers, Nurse Consultant Upper GI/NET Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Ady Sipthorpe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.