What is an Islet Cell Tumor?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 20 June 2019
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An islet cell tumor is a tumor arising in specialized cells in the pancreas known as islet cells. These cells produce hormones and in what is known as a functional islet cell tumor, the hormones can be overproduced and the patient may start to experience symptoms suggestive of an endocrine imbalance. Treatment options include surgery and chemotherapy in cases where the tumor is malignant and the prognosis is dependent on the type of tumor and when it is diagnosed.

Some examples of islet cell tumors include insulinomas, gastrinomas, and glucagonomas, referring to the different hormones involved. The tumor can cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, difficulty with digestion, dizziness, weakness, and anemia, depending on the type of hormone produced by the tumor and the level of imbalance. People with islet cell tumors can also be asymptomatic in nonfunctional tumors where the endocrine balance is not affected.

Also known as endocrine pancreatic tumors, these tumors can be identified with abnormal levels of hormones in the blood, as well as medical imaging studies. A biopsy may be recommended to take a sample to learn more about the tumor. Patients may also be taken directly to surgery for removal of the tumor with the goal of catching it before it spreads to the liver, where it can cause organ damage. The earlier an islet cell tumor is caught, the better the chances for the patient, as early detection allows for aggressive early treatment.


Surgery to take out the growth is generally recommended. Patients experiencing problems as a result of a problem with the balance of their hormones may take drugs to suppress hormone activity. After surgery, chemotherapy can be used to attack any cancer cells left behind in the body. Chemotherapy is designed to prevent metastasis by limiting the growth of cancer.

This type of tumor is very rare. A patient with an islet cell tumor may work with an endocrinologist, as well as an oncologist, to develop an appropriate treatment plan. The imbalance of hormones seen with some tumors can be a cause for concern, as there is a risk of experiencing complications. Patients may want to consider discussing evaluation and treatment with another physician to get a second opinion on the matter, as the rarity of these tumors can make them unfamiliar to many doctors.

When diagnosed with an islet cell tumor, it is advisable to get information about the staging of the tumor and how aggressive it is. This information will be helpful when making decisions about treatment.



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