Types of Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas contains exocrine and endocrine glands. Most of the pancreatic cells are part of the exocrine glands, which produce the pancreatic “juice” that breaks down fats and proteins.  Likewise, around 95 percent of pancreatic tumors involve exocrine cells, and most exocrine tumors are adenocarcinomas, which means they start in the gland cells rather than other exocrine tissue.

The pancreas is also home to a small but important group of endocrine glands (also called islet cells) that produce insulin to help the body regulate blood sugar.  While most endocrine/islet cell tumors are not cancerous, some are malignant.  Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died of an endocrine pancreatic tumor.

Note: In addition to the MUSC Pancreas Surgery Program of Excellence, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and the American Cancer Society served as resources in putting together the educational materials on pancreatic cancer in this section.

Exotrine Pancreatic Tumors

  • Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas  - This occurs in the lining of the pancreatic duct and is by far the most common type of pancreatic tumor. By definition, an adenocarcinoma starts in the gland cells.
  • Acinar cell carcinoma - A very rare form of pancreatic cancer that may cause excessive production of the enzyme that digests fats.
  • Mucinous cystadenocarcinoma - A rare, malignant, spongy, cystic tumor, filled with a thick fluid called mucin.
  • Serous cystadenocarcinoma - An extremely rare tumor that has progressed from a benign serous cystadenoma, which is characterized by many small cysts.
  • Intraductal Papillary-Mucinous Neoplasm (IPMN) - An IPMN is a cyst that grows from the main pancreatic duct or from side branches of the duct. The IPMN may appear as a finger-like (papillary) projection into the duct. An IPMN may be benign at the time of diagnosis, but can become malignant.
  • Giant Cell Tumor - A giant cell tumor has unusually large cells, but the tumor is not any larger than other pancreatic cancers. They are rare and not usually very aggressive.
  • Solid and pseudopapillary tumors - These can arise anywhere in the pancreas. Some parts of the tumor are solid, while other parts are or finger-like (papillary). These tumors are primarily found in women in their 30’s and are usually cured if completely removed with surgery.
  • Pancreatoblastoma - A rare form of pancreatic cancer - often called “pancreatic cancer of infancy" - that is found primarily in children under age 10.

Endocrine Pancreatic Tumors
Note: A pancreatic endocrine tumor may be called an islet cell tumor or a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.

Endocrine tumors in the pancreas include the following, which may be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous):

  • Insulinoma - A rare pancreatic tumor that secretes insulin, the hormone that lowers glucose levels in the blood.
  • Gastrinoma - A tumor that secretes above average levels of gastrin, a hormone that stimulates the stomach to secrete acids and enzymes. (Gastrinoma can cause peptic ulcers.)
  • Glucagonoma - A tumor that secretes glucagon, a hormone that raises levels of glucose in the blood, often leading to a rash.
  • Nonfunctional Islet Cell Tumor - Usually malignant and hard to detect.
  • Somatostatinoma - These are rare, large and can occur anywhere in the pancreas or duodenum. They overproduce the hormone somatostatin.
  • Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide-Releasing Tumor - VIPomas are usually located in the body and tail of the pancreas. Two-thirds are found in women.



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