What is Endocrine Pancreatic Cancer?

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  • Written By: J.L. Drede
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2018
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Endocrine pancreatic cancer is a very rare form of cancer of the pancreas, making up only 5 percent of all pancreatic cancer diagnosis every year. It is one of two forms of pancreatic cancer, the other being exocrine pancreatic cancer. Both forms have very low survival rates.

The function of the pancreas is to both aide in the digestive process and supply hormones, most importantly insulin, to the body. Islet cells in the pancreas are responsible for producing the hormones, while the acini cells produce the digestive enzymes. Endocrine pancreatic cancer is the formation of cancerous tumors in the islet cells, while exocrine pancreatic cancer is the formation of tumors in the acini cells.

Within the islet cells, different kinds of tumors can manifest, depending on the location of the tumor and the effects they cause. Gastrinomas tumors are tumors of the cells that make gastrin, a hormone that helps the stomach release acid to digest food. These tumors cause for excess stomach acid to be released, usually resulting in ulcers and diarrhea. Glucagonomas are tumors of the cells that produce glucagon, a hormone that adds glucose to the blood. These tumors cause high blood sugar.


The least serious of the tumors are insulinomas, which are tumors of the cells that make insulin. These affect the cells that create insulin, which also controls glucose levels in the body. These are the only tumors of the endocrine system that are non-cancerous, or benign, and typically are not signs of endocrine pancreatic cancer. In addition to these types of tumors there are also non-functioning tumors of the islet cells. These tumors do nothing at first, and only cause damage and symptoms as they spread to other parts of the body.

Symptoms of endocrine pancreatic cancer can be mild at first — diarrhea and indigestion are common early signs. As the tumors grow and the cancer affects the systems of the pancreas, more severe symptoms become apparent. These can include a yellowing of the skin, lumps in the abdomen with abdominal pain, stomach ulcers, rashes, fluctuations in body sugar and rapid weight loss. Because many symptoms of pancreatic cancer are common with other conditions, it is not always the first diagnosis made.

For a doctor to make a diagnosis of endocrine pancreatic cancer, several tests and examinations may be done. Blood work to measure hormone levels, and physical examinations to look for lumps or any other abnormalities are usually done first. If pancreatic cancer is suspected, MRI, CT and ultrasound scans may be done in an effort to detect the formation of tumors in the pancreas.

Unfortunately, the survival rates for any form of pancreatic cancer are very low. By the time noticeable symptoms of the condition have been made, it has usually progressed to later stages of the disease, and may have even spread to other parts of the body. Treatment to stop the cancer may include surgery to remove tumors or portions of the pancreas, as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.



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