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Pancreatic Cancer, Exocrine

Overview :

The pancreas is a 6-8 in (15-20 cm) long, slipper-shaped gland located in the abdomen. It lies behind the stomach, within a loop formed by the small intestine. Other nearby organs include the gallbladder, spleen, and liver. The pancreas has a wide end (head), a narrow end (tail), and a middle section (body). A healthy pancreas is important for normal food digestion and also plays a critical role in the body's metabolic processes. The pancreas has two main functions, and each are performed by distinct types of tissue. The exocrine tissue makes up the vast majority of the gland and secretes fluids into the other organs of the digestive system. The endocrine tissue secretes hormones (like insulin) that are circulated in the bloodstream, and these substances control how the body stores and uses nutrients. The exocrine tissue of the pancreas, comprised mostly of acinar cells and ductal cells, produces pancreatic (digestive) juices. These juices contain several enzymes that help break down proteins and fatty foods. The exocrine pancreas forms an intricate system of channels or ducts, which are tubular structures that carry pancreatic juices to the small intestine where they are used for digestion.

Pancreatic tumors are classified as either exocrine or endocrine tumors depending on which type of tissue they arise from within the gland. Ninety-five percent of pancreatic cancers occur in the tissues of the exocrine pancreas. Ductal adenocarcinomas arise in the cells that line the ducts of the exocrine pancreas and account for 80% to 90% of all tumors of the pancreas. Unless specified, nearly all reports on pancreatic cancer refer to ductal adenocarcinomas. Less common types of pancreatic exocrine tumors include acinar cell carcinoma, cystic tumors that are typically benign but may become cancerous, and papillary tumors that grow within the pancreatic ducts. Pancreatoblastoma is a very rare disease that primarily affects young children. Two-thirds of pancreatic tumors occur in the head of the pancreas, and tumor growth in this area can lead to the obstruction of the nearby common bile duct that empties bile fluid into the small intestine. When bile cannot be passed into the intestine, patients may develop yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice) due to the buildup of bilirubin (a component of bile) in the bloodstream. Tumor blockage of bile or pancreatic ducts may also cause digestive problems since these fluids contain critical enzymes in the digestive process. Depending on their size, pancreatic tumors may cause abdominal pain by pressing on the surrounding nerves. Because of its location deep within the abdomen, pancreatic cancer often remains undetected until it has spread to other organs such as the liver or lung. Pancreatic cancer tends to rapidly spread to other organs, even when the primary (original) tumor is relatively small.

Though pancreatic cancer accounts for only 3% of all cancers, it is the fifth most frequent cause of cancer deaths. In 2001, an estimated 29,200 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in the United States. Pancreatic cancer is primarily a disease associated with advanced age, with 80% of cases occurring between the ages of 60 and 80. Men are almost twice as likely to develop this disease than women. Countries with the highest frequencies of pancreatic cancer include the United States, New Zealand, Western European nations, and Scandinavia. The lowest occurrences of the disease are reported in India, Kuwait and Singapore. African Americans have the highest incidence of pancreatic cancer of any ethnic group worldwide. Whether this difference is due to diet or environmental factors remains unclear.

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