Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

The pancreas (PAN-cree-us) is an organ that sits in the left side of your belly. The pancreas has two main functions. It makes digestive enzymes (proteins that break down food) and hormones that regulate blood sugar, such as insulin.

Pancreatic (PAN-cree-at-ick) occurs when abnormal cells grow uncontrolled in the pancreas. Most pancreatic cancers occur in the part of the pancreas that produces digestive fluids. A small number of pancreatic cancers occur in a part of the pancreas that helps regulate blood sugar.

It is very important that your doctor find out which kind of pancreatic cancer you have because the two types have different treatments. This article will focus on the first type, which is called adenocarcinoma (add-en-oh-car-cin-oh-mah).

The problem with pancreatic cancer is that it usually spreads before any symptoms appear. Doctors aren't sure what causes pancreatic cancer, but they know it is more common in:

  • smokers

  • men

  • people with diabetes

  • African Americans

People who have had surgery for stomach ulcers or who have had chronic inflammation of the pancreas are also more likely to develop this cancer. And this type of cancer may run in families.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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