It is not unusual for cysts to form in the pancreas. Pancreatic cysts are balloon-like packets filled with fluid that have no known cause. They are almost always discovered incidentally during a test performed for other reasons or issues.
Most pancreatic cysts are benign (noncancerous) and stem from conditions other than cancer—such as inflammation associated with pancreatitis, or as a result of abdominal trauma. However, some cysts are considered precancerous, and a small percentage are malignant or can become cancerous over time. Most pancreatic cysts do not cause symptoms, but very large ones may cause blockages and pain.
Pancreatic Cysts and Cancer
For the reasons above, your physician may want to conduct further evaluation of your pancreatic cyst. How a cyst looks, what’s inside it, and its location in the pancreas can provide clues about its risk of becoming cancerous.
It is important to see a specialist who can determine the appropriate plan for diagnosis and treatment, which could consist of a biopsy, imaging tests, regular surveillance, or surgical removal. At Fox Chase, we see many patients with pancreatic cysts, and we offer specialized expertise for this condition.
There are several types of pancreatic cysts. Some are filled with a mucus-like substance called mucin, which can block the ducts that connect the pancreas to the intestine. Mucin-producing cysts have the potential to become malignant, especially if they are larger or have a thickened wall that lights up with contrast on imaging. These types of cysts include:
Intraductal Papillary Mucinous Neoplasms
Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm (IPMN) is the most common type of precancerous pancreatic cysts. They produce large amounts of mucin in their lining and fluid, and are most often found in people older than 50.
At Fox Chase, your pancreatic team of surgeons, radiologists, and gastroenterologists will determine whether an IPMN is arising from your main pancreatic duct or from a side branch of the duct. Typically, your care team will perform an MRI and an endoscopy or biopsy to sample the cyst and examine its fluid to see what kind of cells it contains.
It is difficult to predict whether an IPMN will become cancerous, but cysts in the main pancreatic duct have a significantly higher rate of malignancy.
Mucinous Cystic Neoplasms
Mucinous cystic neoplasms (MCNs), which occur primarily in women, have the potential to become cancerous because of nodules or growths on the cyst walls. They can cause pain, although they are generally asymptomatic. This type of cyst often arises in the tail or body of the pancreas, but can be located anywhere in the gland.
Other Common Pancreatic Cysts
- Serous cystadenomas: These benign cysts, which contain clear, thin fluid, are usually asymptomatic and do not require treatment beyond observation.
- Pseudocysts: Not true cysts, pseudocysts are lined with inflammatory or scar tissue and usually stem from acute pancreatitis. They are not cancerous and often heal on their own, although they can cause pain or require drainage if they are large.