What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is the ninth most common cancer in men and tenth most common cancer in women.

Unfortunately pancreatic cancer has a low survival rate as it is most often diagnosed at an advanced stage. Pancreatic cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death over all.

The risk of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer by age 85 is 1 in 56 for men and 1 in 71 for women.

Pancreatic cancer symptoms

Pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms until the cancer is big enough to touch and affect organs nearby.

Early signs of pancreatic cancer include:

  • pain in the upper abdomen
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • weight loss
  • changed bowel motions – either diarrhoea or severe constipation
  • jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes, and dark urine).

Less common signs include:

  • severe back pain
  • onset of diabetes (10-20% of people with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes).

Causes of pancreatic cancer

The causes of pancreatic cancer are not known, but factors that put some people at higher risk include:

  • smoking
  • age (it occurs mostly in people over the age of 65)
  • diabetes: pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people who have diabetes
  • a family history of pancreatic, ovarian or colon cancer
  • chronic pancreatitis
  • gastrectomy.

Screening for pancreatic cancer

There is no routine screening test for pancreatic cancer.

Diagnosis for pancreatic cancer

Tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer include:

  • blood tests
  • imaging tests: ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, PET scan
  • tissue sampling tests including fine-needle aspiration (needle biopsy), endoscopy and laparoscopy.

Treatment for pancreatic cancer


Imaging and tissue sampling tests (above) are used to determine the stage of the cancer.

The staging system used for pancreatic cancer is the TNM system, which describes the stage of the cancer from stage I to stage IV.

Types of treatment

Treatment for pancreatic cancer may include surgery, endoscopic treatment, chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or a combination of these treatments.

For early disease, surgery is the most common treatment – usually the Whipple operation, which is the removal of part of the pancreas, the first part of the small bowel (duodenum), part of the stomach and the gall bladder, and part of the bile duct.

Prognosis for pancreatic cancer

An individual's prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer is usually not found until it is advanced. The five year survival rate for people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is around 5%.

Preventing pancreatic cancer

Not smoking or quitting smoking reduces your risk. Smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.