Pancreatic cancer affects the pancreas, a gland between your stomach and your spine. Your pancreas produces hormones and juices that help break down food. 

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. It’s the second most common gastrointestinal cancer in the U.S., and it is becoming more common. 

By far the most common type of pancreatic cancer is called pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Most cases are diagnosed in late stages, when it is difficult to treat, which is why mortality rates remain high. Penn State Cancer Institute aims to improve outcomes through early detection, proper staging and multidisciplinary management.


Treating and managing pancreatic cancer requires experts and specialists with a wide range of knowledge and experience. The treatment plan depends on the stage and extent of the disease.

Pancreatic tumors that have not deeply invaded surrounding blood vessels are usually removed through surgery. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be needed before surgery.

If pancreatic cancer has invaded the surrounding arteries, surgery to remove the tumors may not be an option. In this case, chemotherapy and possibly radiation therapy are the most common treatments.

For metastatic pancreatic cancer - tumors that have spread to distant organs and sites in the body - palliative chemotherapy is the standard of care. The goal is to reduce symptoms and possibly extend life. Clinical trials may be an option, providing access to new and promising treatment approaches. To find out if you or your loved one is a candidate for a clinical trial, talk to your Health Care team.

For advanced pancreatic cancer, starting palliative care right away can help control symptoms and maintain quality of life. Palliative care can usually start shortly after diagnosis.  

Related Care and Support

To improve your comfort and well-being while you’re in treatment, you’ll have access to care from:

  • Palliative care providers
  • Social workers
  • Nutritionists
  • Physical therapists
  • Art and music therapists
  • Psychologists

Family members may be at increased risk for pancreatic cancer. Genetic counseling and education can help reduce the risk and help identify symptoms at an earlier stage. Our genetics counselor Maria Baker, PhD, can provide this vital service.

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Prevention and Screening


You can reduce your risk for pancreatic cancer by avoiding certain risk factors, such as:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Eating a lot of red meat or processed meat and dairy products
  • Heavy drinking of alcohol
  • Exposure to chemicals such as asbestos, benzene and pesticides  


Currently, there is no effective screening method for pancreatic cancer. Research into possible methods is ongoing.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in the pancreas.


Signs of pancreatic cancer depend on where the tumor is located in the body. Some common signs include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes)
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored stool
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent indigestion or nausea
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Floating stool
  • Depression


If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, the first step is computer tomography (CT) scans. If CT scans do not show cancer or if you are allergic to CT contrast dye, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used. 

To determine the stage of cancer, you will need endoscopic ultrasonography (EUS), using a flexible, lighted scope and sound waves, or endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), using a flexible, lighted scope and X-rays. 

Positron emission tomography (PET), CT scans or laparoscopy may help if the cancer has spread and is not detected on CT or MRI scans. Diagnosis is often made by EUS-guided fine needle aspiration or CT-guided core needle biopsy.

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Support groups provide an opportunity to share your feelings and connect with other patients and caregivers who are experiencing similar struggles.

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