The pancreas is a small gland in the abdomen, located behind the stomach. It produces many important hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, as well as enzymes that help the body to digest food.
Pancreatic cancer occurs when damaged cells grow in an uncontrolled way. When the genetic materials that contain instructions for all biochemical processes within the pancreas are damaged or mutated, cancer cells are allowed to replicate. However due to the location of the pancreas – deep within the abdomen –the cancer can be difficult to diagnose and is often found at an advanced stage.
Pancreatic cancer often starts within the cells of the pancreatic ducts, and these then spread to the rest of the pancreas. As the pancreatic cancer grows it infiltrates into surrounding nerves, blood vessels and the lymphatic system, where it can then travel to other organs or locations within the body (this is called metastasis).
Approximately 60% of pancreatic cancers arise in the head of the pancreas, with 15% in the pancreas ‘body’, and 5% in the ‘tail’. There are many different types of cancers in the pancreas, including:
Serous Cystadenomas: Benign cystic neoplasms that are twice as common in women, and predominantly occur in people over 70 years old. These are benign and surgery is mostly curative.
Mucinous Cystic Neoplasms: These can be benign, borderline malignant or malignant and usually arise in the body or tail of the pancreas. They are slow-growing masses that can be removed surgically.
Endocrine neoplasms: Also known as ‘islet cell tumours’, these account for only 2% of pancreatic neoplasms and they occur in the cells of the pancreas that produce hormones. They can be malignant, with the ability to spread to the liver and lymph nodes.
Exocrine tumours: These develop in the cells in the pancreas that produce digestive enzymes. More than 90 per cent of all pancreatic cancers are exocrine tumours.
Researchers have found – my mapping more than 100 pancreatic cancer cells – that up to 2,000 genetic mutations can play a role in the development of pancreatic cancer. This information helps to explain why pancreatic cancer is so difficult to treat, and is paving the way towards the development of more targeted treatments.
In saying this, they estimate they 5-10% of pancreatic cancers could be inherited – with genetic mutations passed down through families, causing susceptibility to pancreatic cancer. These inherited factors include the BRCA2 gene, Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome, Hereditary Pancreatitis, Familiar Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma, and Lynch Syndrome.