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Women's Health and Lifestyle

The Pancreas and Pancreatic Cancer

A picture of a woman smiling
A picture of a woman smiling
Kelsey Cheyne

Kelsey Cheyne

Executive Director, Canadian Digestive Health Foundation

The pancreas is an important part of the digestive system. It is a small organ (only about six inches long) that is located in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach and in front of the spine.


The pancreas is an important part of the digestive system. It is a small organ (only about six inches long) that is located in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach and in front of the spine. The pancreas has two major functions: 

  1. Exocrine Function: Produces digestive enzymes, water, and bicarbonate that help with digestion. 
  2. Endocrine Function: Sends out hormones such as insulin and glucagon that control the body’s blood sugar levels and carbohydrate metabolism. 

A number of problems can occur in the pancreas including acute or chronic pancreatitis, pancreas enzyme insufficiency, and pancreatic tumours. Pancreatic cancer covers a number of different cancers that arise from different parts of the pancreas.  However, the most common type of pancreatic cancer is called Adenocarcinoma, and is classified as an exocrine tumour. These tumours account for about 90 per cent of all pancreatic cancers. They occur when abnormal cells grow out of the tissue of pancreas and form a tumour. It’s important to know what type of pancreatic cancer someone has so that their oncologist and their other health care providers can decide how best to treat the cancer. Determination of the type of tumour you have is through a biopsy. 

In the early stages, pancreatic cancer is extremely difficult to diagnose because there are not many early warning signs or symptoms.  Symptoms can be non-existent, vague, or come and go over a period of time or may present as another disease. For example, gallbladder disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease, peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, muscular pain, or diverticulitis. However, as the cancer grows and starts to spread to other parts of the body, people may develop symptoms.  

Currently, there is no effective screening test to recognize pancreatic cancer, so it is important that you listen to their body, and understand the common signs and symptoms and risks. In collaboration with Craig’s Cause Pancreatic Cancer Society, we have put together a list for you to be your best advocate. 

The following are signs and symptoms those with Pancreatic Cancer may experience: 

  • Pain in the upper abdomen or back
  • Jaundice, which is yellow discolouration of the skin and eyes
  • Dark urine
  • Clay coloured stools
  • Itchy skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Change in bowel habits
  • New onset diabetes
  • Unintentional weight loss 

The following are the risks: inherited genetic mutations, family history of pancreatic cancer and other cancers, diabetes, pancreatitis (chronic and inherited), smoking, obesity, race, age, diet, and heavy alcohol use. 

Symptoms can be different for everyone, depending on the size and location of the cancer in the pancreas.  It is important to know the risks and to see a doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms. Time matters for an early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. 

To spread awareness on the topic this November, and learn more about Pancreatic Cancer visit CDHF.ca or CraigsCause.ca

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