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What is pancreatic cancer?

Normal healthy cells grow in a carefully controlled way. Pancreatic cancer develops when cells in the pancreas grow out of control, forming a tumour (a lump or growth). This can happen in the head, body or tail of the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancers are divided into two main groups.

  • Exocrine cancers start in the exocrine cells. These cells make enzymes. About 95 out of 100 pancreatic cancers (95%) are exocrine tumours.
  • Endocrine cancers (also called neuroendocrine tumours or NETs) start in endocrine cells. These cells produce hormones. Less than 5 in 100 (5%) of all pancreatic cancers are neuroendocrine tumours.

The most common type of pancreatic cancer is pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma.

Pancreatic cancer can grow anywhere in the pancreas.

  • Most pancreatic cancers are in the head of the pancreas – about 60 to 70 out of 100 cancers (60-70%).
  • About 20 to 25 out of 100 pancreatic cancers (20-25%) are in the body and tail of the pancreas.
  • About 10 to 20 out of 100 (10-20%) are spread throughout the pancreas.

Exocrine and neuroendocrine cancers behave differently and are treated differently. And there are different types of exocrine and neuroendocrine cancers.

Most of our information is about exocrine cancers. The NET Patient Foundation has more information about neuroendocrine tumours.

Find out more about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Read about how it is diagnosed

Published June 2016

Review date June 2018

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