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BCM - Baylor College of Medicine

Giving life to possible

The Elkins Pancreas Center

Pancreatic Cancer

Cancer is a group of many related diseases. All cancers begin in cells, the body's basic unit of life. Cells make up tissues, and tissues make up the organs of the body.

Normally, cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old and die, new cells take their place.

Sometimes this orderly process breaks down. New cells form when the body does not need them, or old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Tumors Can Be Benign or Malignant

Benign tumors are not cancer. Usually, doctors can remove them. In most cases, benign tumors do not come back after they are removed. Cells from benign tumors do not spread to tissues around them or to other parts of the body. Most important, benign tumors are rarely a threat to life.

Malignant tumors are cancer. They are generally more serious and may be life threatening. Cancer cells can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Also, cancer cells can break away from a malignant tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system. That is how cancer cells spread from the original cancer (primary tumor) to form new tumors in other organs. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

Most pancreatic cancers begin in the ducts that carry pancreatic juices. Cancer of the pancreas may be called pancreatic cancer or carcinoma of the pancreas.

A rare type of pancreatic cancer begins in the cells that make insulin and other hormones. Cancer that begins in these cells is called islet cell cancer or neuroendocrine cancer.

When cancer of the pancreas spreads (metastasizes) outside the pancreas, cancer cells are often found in nearby lymph nodes. If the cancer has reached these nodes, it means that cancer cells may have spread to other lymph nodes or other tissues, such as the liver or lungs. Sometimes cancer of the pancreas spreads to the peritoneum, the tissue that lines the abdomen.

When cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary tumor. For example, if cancer of the pancreas spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are pancreatic cancer cells. The disease is metastatic pancreatic cancer, not liver cancer. It is treated as pancreatic cancer, not liver cancer.

Causes of Pancreatic Cancer

Cancer of the pancreas is a genetic disease which means that it is caused by changes (or mutations) in DNA. Investigators in The Elkins Pancreas Center are intensely studying these changes. When DNA is damaged, changes occur in the growth of cells. These cells may grow out of control and eventually form a tumor (a mass of malignant cells). These changes can be inherited or they can be acquired. The inherited changes explain why pancreatic cancer runs in some families, and the acquired changes can be the result of random chance or by exposure to carcinogens such as those found in cigarette smoke. See Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer.