The pancreas is an organ roughly 5 to 7 inches in length, located behind the stomach and surrounded by structures such as the duodenum, gallbladder and liver. It is part of two different systems within the body and thus provides the body with two seperate functions. It is a part of the endocrine system because it produces hormones and it is also a part of the digestive system for its role in the breaking down of nutrients.
The pancreas is primarily composed of exocrine cells. Exocrine cells produce the enzymes necessary for the breakdown and digestion of food. These enzymes or "digestive juices" are carried from the pancreas through a series of ever enlarging passageways or ducts that eventually form the main pancreatic duct. From here the digestive juices are released into the first part of the small bowel known as the duodenum where they begin to mix with food.
The second main function of the pancreas involves its role within the endocrine system. The endocrine pancreas, the portion of the pancreas that produces hormones, is known as the Islets of Langerhans. These cells produce hormones (insulin and glucagon) that are released directly into the blood stream to help regulate and control blood sugar levels. When a persons pancreas cannot properly produce these hormones and/or regulate the bodies blood sugar levels a person may develop diabetes.
The pancreas lies behind the stomach, deep within the body. It is comprised of three main parts: the head, the body and the tail.
The head of the pancreas is the widest end of the pancreas, centrally located in the image above.
The body of the pancreas is to the right of the head in the image above, consising of a slightly tapered section.
The tail of the pancreas is the narrowest portion, located to the far right in the image above.
What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic Cancer develops as cells within the Pancreas begin to multiply out of control, forming a mass. The exact cause of this uncontrolled mutation within a specific individual may not be apparent though general cancer biology points to damaged DNA as the reason for his uncontrolled mutation. Inherited genes as well as age acquired developments may contribue to the formation of pancreatic cancer. Cancers can occur throughout the entirety of the pancreas to include the tail, body and head of the pancreas. Pancreatic Cancer is divided into two major types:Exocrine tumors and Neuroendocrine tumors.
Exocrine Tumors are the most common form of Pancreatic Cancer with nearly 90% being adenocarcinomas.
Adenocarcinomas develop inside channels, or ducts, within the pancreas often in or near the region that produces the digestive pancreatic juices which contain enzymes used for breaking down much of what we digest.
Acinar Cell Carcinoma is a more rare form of pancreatic cancer that attacks the end of the ducts where the digestive pancreatic juices are created. While these tumors can cause a variety of problems including excessive enzyme production they are generally slower growing and patient outcomes tend to be more postive.
Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors, or PNETS, are a less common form of pancreatic cancer. This cancer attacks the region of the pancreas where insulin and other hormones are made and released directly into the bloodstream. They are also referred to as Islet Cell Tumors.
Islet Cells are the hormone producing cells within the Pancreas. PNETS are classified into two general categories: Functional tumors (Hormone producing) and Non-Functional tumors (Non-Hormone producing).
For more information please visit:
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center & Comprehensive Cancer Center
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program