What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a large, tongue-shaped gland that measures approximately 15 cm long. It sits deep inside the abdomen between the stomach, liver and spleen. 

The pancreas has three different sections: 

  • head – the wide end on the right side of the body 
  • body – the middle section of the pancreas 
  • tail – the thin end on the left side of the body. 

The pancreas has two important functions: 

  • Exocrine function – most of the cells in the pancreas are exocrine cells. Exocrine cells produce enzymes released through a duct to help your body break down foods and absorb nutrients. 
  • Endocrine function – the remaining cells in the pancreas are endocrine cells. Endocrine cells produce hormones, such as insulin, to help control blood sugar levels.  You are likely to notice issues with both of these functions if you have pancreatic disease.

You are likely to notice issues with both of these functions if you have pancreatic disease.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control in the pancreas and form a tumour. Although pancreatic cancer can happen anywhere in the pancreas, approximately 70% of cases occur in the head of the pancreas.

The two main types of tumours that develop in the pancreas are exocrine and endocrine tumours. The type of tumour is based on the cells where the tumour originated:

  • Exocrine pancreatic cancer – Exocrine tumours are the most common, accounting for 95% of pancreatic cancer cases. About 85% of these are pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas (PDAC), which start in the lining of the pancreatic duct.
  • Endocrine pancreatic cancer – Endocrine tumours are also known as pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (NETs) or islet cell tumours. They start in the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas and account for approximately 5% of pancreatic tumours.

Watch: What is pancreatic cancer - explained

Animation | What is pancreatic cancer?

Did you know?

Number of Australians diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 

In 2023, 4506 Australians were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (AIHW).

Impact males and females equally

The incidence of pancreatic cancer is similar between males and females (52% vs 48%).

Most cases diagnosed in people over 60 years of age

Pancreatic cancer is most frequently diagnosed in individuals over 65 years of age. More than 50% of cases are diagnosed in people aged 60 to 79 years. However, the incidence of pancreatic cancer is also increasing in younger Australians under age of 40 (AIHW)

Number of deaths due to pancreatic cancer in Australia 

In 2023, there were 3669 deaths from pancreatic cancer.

5-year survival rate of 13%

The 5-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer in Australia is 13%. (SEER)

Earlier the better

The earlier pancreatic cancer is discovered, the better the outcomes. Most individuals are diagnosed when the cancer has spread (metastasised)(SEER)