The pancreas is approximately 6 inches long and shaped like a thin, flat pear, although physicians are taught to consider the pancreas like a fish with a head, body, and tail. Centrally located deep within the upper abdomen, the pancreas is surrounded by the stomach, liver, intestines, colon, and other organs of the abdomen. The primary function of the pancreas is to produce enzymes that assist the body in the digestion of fats and proteins. The pancreas also produces insulin and other hormones that regulate how much sugar is present in the blood.
There are several types of pancreatic cancer, but the most common is adenocarcinoma. An adenocarcinoma is a malignant tumor that arises from the exocrine glands of the pancreas that are responsible for the production of enzymes used in food digestion. Approximately 95% of all cancers of the pancreas will take the form of adenocarcinoma. Islet cell cancer is another, much more rare type of pancreatic cancer. Islet cell cancers are malignant tumors that arise from the endocrine glands of the pancreas, the glands responsible for the production of insulin and other sugar-regulating hormones. Cancers which form in these glands are very different from cancers which form in the exocrine glands. Due to the distinct risk factors, symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment of the very rare islet cell cancer, this page will focus primarily on the more common pancreatic cancer found in the exocrine glands.