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Pancreatic Cancer Overview

The pancreas is an organ in the upper abdomen located beneath the stomach and adjacent to the first portion of the small intestine, called the duodenum. The pancreas is composed of glands that are responsible for a wide variety of tasks. The glandular functions of the pancreas can be divided into the following 2 categories:

•           Exocrine: The exocrine glands secrete enzymes into ducts that eventually empty into the duodenum. These enzymes then help in the digestion of food as it moves through the intestines.

•           Endocrine: The endocrine glands secrete hormones, including insulin, into the bloodstream. Insulin is carried by the blood throughout the rest of the body to assist in the process of using sugar as an energy source. Insulin also controls the levels of sugar in the blood.
The pancreas can be divided into the following 4 anatomical sections:
•           Head - The rightmost portion that lies adjacent to the duodenum

•           Uncinate process - An extension of the head of the pancreas

•           Body - The middle portion of the pancreas

•           Tail - The leftmost portion of the pancreas that lies adjacent to the spleen

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Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasia (IPMN) is a type of pancreatic cancer that is beginning to be recognized more frequently. This pancreatic cancer has a better prognosis than other types of pancreatic cancer. Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasia is usually diagnosed endoscopically (see Exams and Tests).

The most common type of pancreatic cancer arises from the exocrine glands and is called adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. The endocrine glands of the pancreas can give rise to a completely different type of cancer, referred to as pancreatic neuroendocrine carcinoma or islet cell tumor. This article only discusses issues related to the more common type of pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

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Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is among the most aggressive of all cancers. By the time that pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, most people already have disease that has spread to distant sites in the body.

Pancreatic cancer is also relatively resistant to medical treatment, and the only potentially curative treatment is surgery. In 2004, approximately 31,800 people in the United States were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and approximately 31,200 people died of this disease. These numbers reflect the challenge in treating pancreatic cancer and the relative lack of curative options.

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