The Biology of Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas, a pear-shaped gland located in the abdomen between the stomach and the spine. Its duty is to secrete enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help regulate the metabolism of sugars. The pancreas is made up of two major components- exocrine and the endocrine. The exocrine component of the pancreas pancreatic fluid that contains digestive enzymes that pass to the small intestine. These enzymes help to further break down the carbohydrates, proteins and lipids. The endocrine component of the pancreas secretes the hormones insulin and glucagon to control blood sugar levels throughout the day. Both of these functions are vital to the body’s survival.5 Cancer can prevalent in both components, depending where it began.
Exocrine tumors are the most common type of pancreatic cancer. 95% of people with pancreatic cancer have adenocarcinoma, which starts in gland cells. These tumors usually start in the ducts of the pancreas. 1
Endocrine tumors are also called islet cell tumors or pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs). They are much less common than exocrine tumors, making up about 1% of pancreatic cancers.1 A PNET can be functioning- meaning it makes hormones, or nonfunctioning- meaning it doesn’t make hormones. This is crucial to the human body because the pancreas produces insulin, one of the most important hormones to our bodies. If it’s nonfunctioning than no insulin is released into the body, which can be problematic because it can cause Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes. 7
Worldwide, over 200,000 people die annually of pancreatic cancer. In the United States, pancreatic cancer is the 4th leading cause of cancer death. Because of its high fatality rates, pancreatic cancer incidence rates are almost equal to mortality rates. It is usually diagnosed late in the stages of the cancer, given the few early side effects that can easily be looked over, and...