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Useful medical words

We have explained some of the medical words that you may hear when you are finding out about pancreatic cancer and how it is treated. You may also find the diagram of the pancreas and surrounding organs helpful. 

Diagram of the pancreas and surrounding organs

Pancreatic cancer and surrounding organs 


Absorption: once your food has been broken down, the nutrients are absorbed into the blood so that they can be used by the body.

Adjuvant treatment: additional treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy given after surgery.

Advanced pancreatic cancer: pancreatic cancer that has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body. Also known as metastasis or secondary cancer.

Ampulla of Vater: the area where the pancreatic duct and common bile duct meet, at the duodenum. Also known as the hepatopancreatic ampulla.

Ascites: build-up of fluid in the tummy that may cause swelling.

Bile: fluid which helps digestion. It is produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder.

Bile duct: a tube that carries bile from the liver to the duodenum.

Bilirubin: a yellow substance found in bile. It is the waste product of the normal break down of old red blood cells. Jaundice develops when there is a build-up of bilirubin in the blood.

Biopsy: procedure to remove tissue to examine under a microscope.

Cachexia: loss of fat and muscle in people with long term illnesses, such as cancer.

Chemoradiotherapy: treatment that uses chemotherapy together with radiotherapy.

Chemotherapy: treatment that uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells.

Constipation: problems emptying your bowels. Poo may be hard, dry and difficult to pass.

Diarrhoea: passing loose watery stools (poo).

Diet: your diet is the food you eat. When we talk about symptoms or problems around diet in this booklet, we mean problems that can affect your eating and digestion. We are not talking about the kind of diet people often go on to help them lose weight. Most people with pancreatic cancer won’t need to lose weight – many often need to put weight back on.

Dietitian: a professional who provides expert advice about diet and nutrition, including how to manage the dietary symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

Digestion: what your body does to break down your food to get the nutrients out of it.

Duodenum: the first part of the small intestines.

Enzymes: substances produced by different glands in the body, including the pancreas. Different types of enzymes have different roles in the body. Pancreatic enzymes help break down our food and drink.

Gastroenterologist: a specialist in diseases and disorders of the digestive system, including the stomach, intestines, liver and pancreas.

Glucose: a sugar found in foods and drinks. Our body turns all carbohydrates (such as starch) that we eat into glucose, and uses it as energy.

Hepatobiliary: this term covers the liver, gall bladder and bile ducts. These are very close to the pancreas, and hepatobiliary doctors and nurses may specialise in treating pancreatic diseases as well.

Hormones: chemical messengers that are carried in your blood and affect different processes in your body.

Insulin: a hormone that is produced by the pancreas and helps to control blood sugar level.

Jaundice: develops when there is a build-up of a substance called bilirubin in the blood. It is a symptom of pancreatic cancer. You may get yellow skin and eyes, and itching.

Localised pancreatic cancer: pancreatic cancer that is contained in the pancreas. Also known as early or resectable pancreatic cancer.

Locally advanced pancreatic cancer: pancreatic cancer that has spread to structures around the pancreas, such as blood vessels.

Lymph nodes: tiny oval structures throughout the body that contain lymph fluid. Part of the immune system.

Metastatic cancer: see Advanced cancer above.

Nutrients: the things you get from your food that you need to be healthy. They include proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals.

Nutritional supplements: specially formulated drinks, powders and foods to increase calorie intake and help you gain weight.

Oncologist: a doctor who specialises in treating cancer. A medical oncologist is an expert on drug treatments. A clinical oncologist also manages radiotherapy treatment.

Palliative treatment: treatment that controls pain and other symptoms. Palliative care also provides emotional, practical and spiritual support when a cure is no longer possible. It’s not just for people in the final stages of life.

Pancreatic duct: the small tube that carries pancreatic juices, containing pancreatic enzymes, from the pancreas to the duodenum.

Pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT): used if the pancreas isn’t producing enough enzymes. It involves taking pancreatic enzyme supplements to help break down food.

Pancreatic enzyme supplements: help to digest food when the pancreas isn't producing enough digestive enzymes.

Pathology: examination of tissue and cells under a microscope. A pathologist is a doctor specialising in pathology.

Radiologist: a doctor specialising in using x-rays to diagnose and treat disease.

Radiotherapy: radiotherapy uses high-energy x-rays (radiation) to destroy cancer cells.

Small intestines: part of the bowel, where food is mostly digested and absorbed. The duodenum is the first part of the small intestines.

Steatorrhoea: caused by fat in stools. Symptoms include pale yellow or clay coloured stools, which can look oily or greasy, smell horrible, and are difficult to flush down the toilet. It can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer.

Stools: poo. Also called faeces or bowel motions.

Supportive care:  Supportive care helps people cope with their condition and its treatment, from before diagnosis, through diagnosis and their treatment and care. It helps people to live as well as possible.

Upper gastrointestinal: the upper part of the digestive system, including the oesophagus (the tube between the throat and stomach), stomach, liver, pancreas, gall bladder and bile ducts. Often shortened to upper GI.


Published January 2018

Review date January 2020

Information Standard