The pancreas is an organ deep in the body, behind the stomach. It is shaped a little like a fish. In adults it is about 6 inches long and less than 2 inches wide. The pancreas has 2 different kinds of glands that have different functions.
The exocrine glands make “pancreatic juice,” which is released into the intestines when we eat. This juice has enzymes that break down foods so the body can absorb them. Most of the cells in the pancreas are part of the exocrine system. A smaller number of cells in the pancreas are endocrine cells. These cells are in clusters called islets. They make hormones like insulin that help balance the amount of sugar in the blood.
Exocrine tumors are by far the most common type of pancreas cancer. Nearly all of these tumors are adenocarcinomas (cancers that start in gland cells). They most commonly occur in the head of the pancreas and present after obstructing the major bile duct, leading to jaundice. The mainstay of care is surgery. Whether or not surgery can be done is dependent on how early the cancer is found.
Frequently this cancer grows into other structures, preventing removal. Care also commonly involves radiation and chemotherapy. Tumors of the endocrine pancreas are much less common. They are known as islet cell tumors or neuroendocrine tumors. There are many types, including: Gastrinomas, Insulinomas, Glucagonomas, Somatostatinomas, VIPomas, and Ppomas.