About Pancreatic Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, and Assessing your Risk

Sanjay S. Reddy, MD, FACS and the nurses at Fox Chase work together as a team to provide excellent care and personalized treatment to each patient.
Sanjay S. Reddy, MD, FACS and the nurses at Fox Chase work together as a team to provide excellent care and personalized treatment to each patient.

The pancreas is a gland that produces hormones, such as insulin, as well as proteins called enzymes that help the body digest food. It measures about six inches long and is shaped somewhat like a tadpole, with the “head” (on the right side) wider than the “tail.” The pancreas extends across the abdomen, behind the stomach, and in front of the spine.

Roughly 90 percent of pancreatic cancers are ductal adenocarcinoma, which starts in the exocrine cells that line the ducts of the pancreas. Ducts are the tiny tubes that fluids pass through, and where enzymes are made. Pancreatic cancer can also start in the endocrine cells, where hormones are produced, resulting in pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNET).


Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Because there currently is no recommended routine screening to detect pancreatic cancer, it is often found after an abnormal blood test or a routine imaging test. Symptoms may be vague, as there are no specific symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

The list below includes possible signs of pancreatic cancer, but these also could be an indication of many other medical conditions. Consult with your doctor if you are experiencing the following symptoms:


  • Chronic pain in the abdomen, often radiating to the back
  • Unexplained, sudden weight loss
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Nausea
  • Floating stools
  • Indigestion

Risk Factors: What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

Normally, the cells in our body grow and divide to make new cells as old cells die. When abnormal genetic mutations occur, the exocrine or endocrine cells in the pancreas can become cancer cells. These cells make new ones that are not needed and do not die quickly when old or injured. As this overgrowth of cancer cells continues over time, it forms a mass called a tumor.

In most cases of cancer, researchers haven’t yet identified the exact reason behind the abnormal cell division process. However, chronic inflammation can lead to pancreatic cancer development, and the chances of developing pancreatic cancer may increase with the following risk factors:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Contact with certain chemicals, such as pesticides or asbestos
  • Poor diet
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis (chronic inflammation in the pancreas)
  • History of pancreatic, breast, or ovarian cancers in close blood relatives; familial pancreatic cancers are genetically predisposed.

Having any of these risk factors does not mean you will develop pancreatic cancer. Some people with pancreatic cancer have none of these risk factors.

Fox Chase’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Risk Assessment Program

For people at risk of developing some hereditary cancers, Fox Chase’s Department of Clinical Genetics offers education, screening and counseling services as part of its Risk Assessment Program. This includes high-risk cancer clinics and risk assessments for gastrointestinal cancers, including tumors of the pancreas.

If you have a personal or family history of such cancers, you are eligible to participate. Through clinical and genetic evaluation, screening and assessment, our physicians, nurses and genetic counselors help individuals and their families determine their risk for pancreatic cancer. The team then offers recommendations to help reduce cancer risk.

Our Risk Assessment team also conducts research into how cancer develops, how it can be prevented, and how it can be best treated, with the goal of reducing the risk of cancer for individuals, families, and communities.

If you are interested in learning more about gastrointestinal cancer risk assessment, please call Fox Chase Cancer Center’s Risk Assessment Program at 877-627-9684. The program also assesses risks for breast, ovarian, endocrine, diffuse gastric, kidney, uterine, and skin cancers.

“Pancreatic cancer affects patients on most levels of their lives, not only physically but also economically and emotionally. We are well aware of the pressures they face. We feel very strongly that our mission at Fox Chase is to provide patient care that is the most advanced technologically, the most sophisticated scientifically, and the most compassionate on a human level.”
Igor Astsaturov, MD, PhD, Department of Hematology/Oncology and pancreatic cancer specialist