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What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells develop in any part of the pancreas. This may affect how the pancreas works, including its exocrine or endocrine functions. About 70% of pancreatic cancers are found in the head of the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes, blood vessels or nerves, and to the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum). Cancer cells may also travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, such as the liver.

There are two main types of pancreatic cancer:

Exocrine tumours – These make up more than 95% of pancreatic cancers. The most common type, called an adenocarcinoma, starts in the cells lining the pancreatic duct. Less common types include adenosquamous carcinoma and undifferentiated carcinoma. The different types are named after the cells they start in.

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (NETs) – About 5% of pancreatic cancers are pancreatic NETs. These start in the endocrine cells. Pancreatic NETs are categorised as either non-hormone producing (non-functioning) or hormone producing (functioning).

How common is pancreatic cancer?

About 3300 Australians are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. More than 80% are over the age of 60. It is estimated to be the eleventh most common cancer in males and eighth most common in females in Australia during 2019.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed February 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Lorraine Chantrill, Head of Department, Medical Oncology, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District, NSW; Marion Bamblett, Nurse Unit Manager, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Prof Katherine Clark, Clinical Director of Palliative Care, Northern Sydney Local Health District Cancer and Palliative Care Network, and Conjoint Professor, Northern Clinical School, The University of Sydney, NSW; Lynda Dunstone, Consumer; Kate Graham, Accredited Practising Dietitian – Upper GI Dietitian, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Gina Hesselberg, Radiation Oncologist, St George Hospital Cancer Centre, NSW; Dr Marni Nenke, Endocrinologist and Mary Overton Early Career Research Fellow, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; A/Prof Nicholas O’Rourke, Head of Hepatobiliary Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital and The University of Queensland, QLD; Rose Rocca, Senior Clinical Dietitian – Upper GI, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Gail Smith, Consumer.