Thumbnail image of: Pancreas: Illustration

Cancer of the Pancreas

What is cancer of the pancreas?

Pancreatic cancer is a growth of abnormal cells that form tumors in the pancreas. The pancreas is behind the stomach. It helps break down food so that the nutrients can be used by your body. The pancreas also makes hormones, such as insulin. The hormones help your body use and store the energy it gets from food. Pancreatic cancer most often starts in the tubes that carry pancreatic juices. If the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is still pancreatic cancer, and is called metastatic cancer.

There are different types and stages of pancreatic based on what kind of cancer cells are found, where the tumor started, and where it has spread. Knowing your type and stage of pancreatic cancer helps your healthcare provider decide on the best treatment plan for you. The main goals of treatment are to kill the tumor cells, prevent a local cancer from spreading, and prevent metastatic cancer from spreading more than it already has.

Several things increase a person’s risk for pancreatic cancer, including:

  • Smoking
  • Long term irritation of the pancreas, often caused by alcohol abuse
  • Obesity
  • Eating a high fat diet
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Long term exposure to certain chemicals

What can I expect in the hospital?

Several things may be done while you are in the hospital to monitor, test, and treat your condition. They include:


  • You will be checked often by the hospital staff.
  • Your fluid intake may be monitored closely by keeping track of everything you eat and drink and any IV fluids you receive.
  • Your fluid output may be monitored closely by keeping track of the amount of urine and bowel movements you produce.
  • You may have fingersticks to check blood sugar regularly. This may be done as often as every hour. You may need to learn how to check your blood sugar level in order to manage your blood sugar when you go home.


Testing will involve both identifying the primary site of the cancer and checking to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests to check for infections or abnormal blood sugar levels
  • Blood, urine, or other tests to monitor how well your organs are functioning
  • Blood tests to check for certain hormones, proteins, or chemicals that may be high if you have cancer, or to check for cancer cells in the blood
  • Tests to look for abnormalities in your pancreas, which may include:
    • Biopsy: A test in which a long, thin needle is placed through the belly and into the pancreas to take a sample of tissue to help make a diagnosis. Your provider may use an ultrasound or CT scan to help guide the needle into the tumor.
    • Computed tomography (CT) scan: A series of X-rays taken from different angles and arranged by a computer to show thin cross sections of the pancreas
    • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): A procedure in which a slim, lighted tube with a camera (called an endoscope) is passed through your mouth and stomach to your pancreas and intestines to look abnormal areas in the passages (ducts) between the pancreas and intestines. Sometimes one or more pieces of tissue are removed to help make a diagnosis. This is called a biopsy. If a duct is blocked by a tumor, your provider may put a small mesh tube called a stent in the duct to help keep it open until other treatments can be done.
    • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography: A series of X-rays taken after your healthcare provider places a long, thin, needle through your belly into the liver and injects dye to check for blockages as the dye flows through the ducts
    • Ultrasound scan: Sound waves are used to show pictures of the inside of your belly and pancreas
    • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: A series of detailed pictures that are taken after your healthcare provider injects a small amount of radioactive material into your blood. The scan shows areas where the radioactive material is being absorbed.


The treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on how far the cancer has advanced, your symptoms, how well you respond to treatment, your overall health, and any complications you may have. Your chance of cure depends on how far the cancer has advanced. You may need to make lifestyle changes to stay as healthy as possible.

  • You will have a small tube (IV catheter) inserted into a vein in your hand or arm. This will allow for medicine to be given directly into your blood and to give you fluids, if needed.
  • You may have a tube put through your nose down into your stomach, called a nasogastric or NG tube. The tube may be used to give fluids or medicine, or with suction to help relieve pressure from air or fluids in your stomach and intestine.
  • Treatments may include:
    • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells.
    • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells.
  • You may need surgery to treat pancreatic cancer. Surgery may include removing part or all of the pancreas. Your surgeon may also remove the bile duct, part of the stomach, or part of the intestine.
  • Your provider may prescribe medicine to:
    • Treat pain
    • Treat or prevent an infection
    • Treat or prevent anemia, which means you have too few red blood cells to carry enough oxygen to your body. Anemia may be caused by your cancer, your treatment, or other problems.
    • Control your blood sugar
    • Treat or prevent side effects, such as nausea or constipation, from other treatments
    • Reduce the acid in your stomach to help relieve acid indigestion
    • Help your immune system fight cancer

What can I do to help?

  • You will need to tell your healthcare team if you have new or worsening:
    • Bloating or pain in your belly
    • Blood in your vomit
    • Dark brown or black material in your vomit that looks like coffee grounds
    • Depression
    • Dizziness or fainting
    • Heartburn
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Redness, swelling, pain, warmth, or drainage from your surgical wound
    • Fever, chills, or muscle aches.
  • Ask questions about any medicine, treatment, or information that you do not understand.

How long will I be in the hospital?

How long you stay in the hospital depends on many factors. The average amount of time to stay in the hospital with pancreatic cancer is 8 days.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Acute Care Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-12-19
Last reviewed: 2014-10-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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