Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer occurs when abnormal cells develop in the pancreas.

Last modified: March 14, 2022

Quick facts about pancreatic cancerQuick facts

  • Pancreatic cancer was Australia’s eighth most diagnosed cancer in 2021
  • The five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 11.5%

Types of pancreatic cancerTypes of pancreatic cancer

There are two types of pancreatic cancers:

Exocrine tumours

These are cancerous tumours that form in the pancreas’s exocrine cells, which make the pancreatic enzymes needed to break down and digest food. Exocrine tumours contribute to 95% of all pancreatic cancers.

  • Adenocarcinoma – The most common type of exocrine tumour, this type of pancreatic cancer starts in the pancreas’ duct lining. Adenocarcinoma can also begin in the cells that make pancreatic enzymes

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (NETs)

These cancerous cells emerge from the pancreas’ endocrine cells. Endocrine cells are responsible for releasing hormones like insulin and glucagon into the blood stream to regulate blood sugar, stomach acid and food absorption2. NETs can be functional (produce hormones) or non-functional (not produce hormones), with most being non-functioning.

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancerSigns and symptoms

Early-stage pancreatic cancer is unlikely to cause any signs or symptoms. This often means pancreatic cancer is diagnosed after it has spread to other parts of the body. Discussing anything concerning with your doctor as soon as possible can help give you peace of mind and offer the best chance of successful treatment if you receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

Symptoms may include:

  • Jaundice – yellowing of the skin and eyes, dark urine, pale bowel motions and itchy skin

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Recent onset diabetes, high amounts of sugar in the blood or reduced blood sugar

  • Appetite loss

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Pain in the back, abdomen or side

  • Changes in stool, such as diarrhoea or paler stools

  • Reflux

  • Unexplained fatigue

Stages of pancreatic cancerStages

The TNM system is used to stage pancreatic cancer, and it helps doctors understand what your cancer looks like. The TNM stands for:

  • Tumour – the size of the tumour
  • Node – if the cancer has involved any lymph nodes
  • Metastasis – whether the cancer has metastasised (spread) to other areas of the body

The TNM information, along with other tests, helps determine the stage of your pancreatic cancer using the guidelines below:

Stage I

The cancer is in its earliest stage and is contained within the pancreas. The tumour is 4cm or less in size.

Stage II

The cancer may be bigger than 4cm in size and has spread into the duodenum, common bile duct and/or no more than three nearby lymph nodes.

Stage III

The cancer has spread outside of the pancreas into nearby blood vessels, organs and/or four or more lymph nodes.

Stage IV

The cancer has spread to distant organs and can be of any size.

Treatment for pancreatic cancer

There are many different types of treatment for pancreatic cancer. Your treatment will depend on you and your cancer.

Frequently asked questions about pancreatic cancerFAQs

Is pancreatic cancer hereditary?

Although there is a link between genetics and pancreatic cancer, a majority of people who develop pancreatic cancer do not have a family history of the disease. Genetic risks are associated with gene changes, causing 10% of pancreatic cancers. These include mutations or defects in the:

  • BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
  • PALB2 gene
  • p16/CDKN2A gene (familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome)
  • PRSS1 gene (familial pancreatitis)
  • MLH1 or MSH2 genes (hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC))
  • STK11 gene (peutz-Jeghers syndrome)
What causes pancreatic cancer?

There’s no one cause of pancreatic cancer, however genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors can all increase your risk. Risk factors include:

  • Age – Most people who have pancreatic cancer are aged 60 or older
  • Certain life-style related factors – Including obesity, drinking excessive alcohol, smoking and exposure to pesticides, dyes or chemicals
  • Family history – A history of pancreatic cancer or inherited gene changes
  • Pre-existing medical conditions – Such as pancreatitis and diabetes
What can I do to decrease my risk of developing pancreatic cancer?

There are multiple lifestyle factors that may reduce your risk of developing pancreatic cancer, including:

  • Get regular exercise – Cancer Australia recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each day
  • Reduce your alcohol intake – If you choose to drink, try to limit your alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks a day
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet – Eat a fibre-rich diet from grain and legume sources, as well as enjoy a variety of fruit (2 serves) and vegetables (5 serves) per day, limit your intake of salt, saturated fats, and avoid all processed meat
  • Stop smoking – Smoking is one of the most preventable causes of cancer. Learn more about quitting smoking
How common is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer was Australia’s eighth most diagnosed cancer in 2021.

Where can I find out more about pancreatic cancer screening?

There is no national screening program for pancreatic cancer in Australia.

Are there clinical trials available for pancreatic cancer that I can participate in?

Icon offers clinical trials across a wide range of cancer types and treatments. If you would like more information on participating in a clinical trial, please speak with your doctor who will be able to find a trial that might be right for you and your cancer.

See current clinical trials delivered by Icon Cancer Centre.


For a full list of references, click here.
  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). Cancer Data in Australia. Retrieved on 21 October 2021 from
  2. Cancer Council. (2020). Types of cancer: Pancreatic cancer. Retrieved on 21 October 2021 from
  3. American Cancer Society. (2019). What Is Pancreatic Cancer? Retrieved on 21 October 2021 from
  4. Kelly, C. K. & Moore C MD. (2019). Two rare cases of pancreatic adenosquamous carcinoma: A review of the literature with focus on radiologic findings. Radiology Case Reports, 14(7), 809-813.
  5. National Cancer Institute. (2021). Adenosquamous carcinoma. Retrieved on 9 November 2021 from
  6. John Hopkins. (2021). Pancreatic Cancer Types. Retrieved on 9 November 2021 from
  7. Cancer Council. (2020). Pancreatic cancer. Retrieved on 21 October 2021 from
  8. National Cancer Institute. (2020). Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®)–Patient Version. Retrieved on 21 October 2021 from
  9. American Cancer Society. (2017). Pancreatic Cancer Stages. Retrieved on 2 November 2021 from
  10. American Cancer Society. (2021). Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors. Retrieved on 25 October 2021 from
  11. The Australian Pancreatic Cancer Foundation. (2020). Causes & Risk Factors. Retrieved on 25 October 2021 from
  12. American Cancer Society. (2020). Can Pancreatic Cancer Be Prevented? Retrieved on 25 October 2021 from
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