Pancreatic Cancer | Cancer


Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to treat, but our compassionate specialists are here for you. We offer the latest surgical and nonsurgical treatments, including the Whipple procedure.

Medically reviewed on June 13, 2023.

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Compassionate Care for Your Cancer Journey

Specialists at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center offer comprehensive surgeries and treatments for pancreatic cancer. We provide the compassionate care you need during this unexpected and challenging journey.


What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when diseased cells in your pancreas grow out of control and form a tumor. Your pancreas makes enzymes (juices) that help your body digest food. This organ also makes hormones like insulin that control blood sugar levels.

There are different types of pancreatic cancer:

  • Exocrine tumors: This cancer forms in the exocrine part of the pancreas that makes digestive juices. More than 9 in 10 pancreatic cancers are this type. The most common exocrine tumor, pancreatic adenocarcinoma, starts in cells lining the pancreatic ducts.
  • Endocrine tumors: Also called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNET) or islet cell tumors, these slower-growing tumors account for less than 10% of pancreatic cancer diagnoses. This cancer starts in the endocrine (islet) cells that make hormones.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms when the tumor is small and the disease is in its early stage. Symptoms are more common when the tumor grows or the cancer spreads.

Common Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Abdominal or back pain, or painful arm or leg swelling due to a blood clot
  • Dark-colored urine or oily stools that float
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Gas, bloating, nausea, or vomiting
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin) or itchy skin
  • Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss
  • New onset of diabetes

Pancreatic Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Physicians don’t always know why cells in the pancreas become cancerous, but the process often involves genetic changes called mutations.

Some people may inherit a mutation that makes them more prone to pancreatic cancer. Gene changes that cause pancreatic cancer can also occur over time. These acquired mutations usually result from exposure to chemicals or other external factors.

Other risk factors that can increase your chances of pancreatic cancer include:

Age, Biological Sex and Race

Men and people older than 65 are more likely to receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. You’re also more at risk if you’re Black or of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.


Pancreatic cancer is more common in people who have type 2 diabetes for at least five years. The sudden onset of diabetes, especially after age 50, also poses a risk.


You are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer if you eat a diet with lots of fatty foods and red meat.

Excess Weight

People with excessive abdominal fat or obesity are about 20% more likely to get pancreatic cancer. Excessive weight gain during adulthood is also a risk factor.

Exposure to Chemicals

Regular or prolonged exposure to certain hazardous chemicals may increase risk. These toxins include asbestos, benzene and pesticides.

Family History

Inherited gene mutations account for 1 in 10 pancreatic cancer diagnoses. You’re most at risk if a parent or sibling has a mutation linked to pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer or melanoma.


Pancreatitis (an inflamed pancreas) from heavy alcohol use or gallstones may contribute to pancreatic cancer.


People who smoke tobacco products are up to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.


Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer

Physicians rely on physical exams, your medical history and various tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer. A physical exam may reveal jaundice, abdominal pain or abdominal fluid buildup called ascites.

Diagnostic tests for pancreatic cancer include: 

  • Blood tests: A blood test can show abnormal levels of liver enzymes and bilirubin that can occur in pancreatic cancer. Blood tests can also find tumor markers. These substances in your blood may be a sign of cancer.
  • Imaging tests: Abdominal imaging can show masses in your pancreas. You may get a CT scan, MRI, ultrasound or positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): This advanced imaging test looks specifically at the pancreatic ducts and bile ducts. It helps detect tumors that may be blocking these ducts. Physicians perform this advanced diagnostic and therapeutic endoscopy procedure using an endoscope (flexible lighted tube), X-rays and an injectable dye.
  • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC): A physician uses X-rays and an injectable dye to look for tumors and blockages.
  • Pancreas biopsy: A physician removes a sample of tissue from the pancreatic tumor. Specialists in our Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine examine the sample for cancer cells. 

Pancreatic Cancer Treatments

Treatments for pancreatic cancer vary depending on the tumor location, cancer stage and factors such as your age and overall health.

Surgery is the best treatment option when cancer is only in the pancreas. Unfortunately, only about 20% of people with pancreatic cancer can get surgery. In many cases, the cancer has already spread (metastatic cancer) or blood vessels near the tumor site make surgical removal too risky.

Medications can help kill cancer cells or slow down their growth. Drug therapies can help if you can’t get, or don’t want, pancreatic cancer surgery.

External radiation therapy uses a machine to deliver X-rays or proton particles through your skin to the tumor site. The radiation destroys cancer cells. This treatment also eases pancreatic cancer symptoms like abdominal or back pain.

At UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, our team of pancreatic cancer specialists offer advanced cancer treatments and services. We tailor a treatment plan that addresses your unique needs and offers the best outcomes.

Distal Pancreatectomy

A surgeon removes a tumor in the tail or body of the pancreas. They also remove your spleen.

Explore surgery for pancreatic cancer
Total Pancreatectomy

This procedure involves removing your pancreas, as well as your gallbladder, spleen, and part of your stomach and small intestine. After surgery, you’ll take insulin and enzyme pills to do the job of the missing pancreas.

Whipple Procedure

Also called a pancreaticoduodenectomy, this surgery is an option when the tumor is in the head of your pancreas. This complex procedure involves removing the pancreas head, gallbladder, part of your small intestine, surrounding lymph nodes and a small section of your stomach.


These drugs circulate through your bloodstream killing cancer cells. You may get chemotherapy instead of surgery, before surgery to shrink the tumor (neoadjuvant therapy) or after surgery to kill lingering cancer cells (adjuvant therapy). Chemotherapy also treats pancreatic cancer that spreads to other organs (called metastatic or stage 4 pancreatic cancer).

Learn more about chemotherapy

Immune checkpoint inhibitors and other immunotherapy drugs help your immune system find and destroy cancer cells.

Learn more about immunotherapy
Targeted Drug Therapy

Targeted drugs zero in on the proteins or gene changes that allow pancreatic cancer cells to multiply.

Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT)

This treatment uses 3D computer images to precisely target radiation at the tumor. A radiologist changes the intensity of the radiation, which allows for safer, higher doses. IMRT causes fewer side effects than traditional radiation therapy.

Learn more about radiation therapy
Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT)

This treatment delivers higher doses of radiation over a shorter period of time (usually five days or less).

Palliative Care

Palliative care specialists provide treatments that ease pain and other disease symptoms. They also help with treatment side effects, such as nausea, and provide emotional support.

See how palliative care can help

Pancreatic Cancer Prevention

Although there isn’t a known way to prevent pancreatic cancer, these steps may lower your risk:

  1. Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
  2. Cut back on alcohol.
  3. Eat a nutritious diet and stay physically active.
  4. Find support to quit smoking through our Stop Tobacco Program (SToP).
  5. Limit exposure to harmful chemicals.

"What Is Pancreatic Cancer?" Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, 

"Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors," American Cancer Society, 

 "Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors," Pancreatic Cancer Action Network,

"Pancreatic Cancer: Risk Factors," American Society of Clinical Oncology, 

How many people does it affect?

175New cases of pancreatic cancer every day

Annual deaths

50KAmericans die each year from pancreatic cancer

American Cancer Society: Key Statistics About Pancreatic Cancer  
Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN): What Is Pancreatic Cancer? 

Request an Appointment

Our cancer specialists provide thorough evaluations and personalized treatment plans. Learn more about how to make an appointment at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.



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