The pancreas has many functions, served by the endocrine cells in the islets of Langerhans
and the exocrine acinar cells
. Pancreatic cancer may arise from any of these and disrupt any of their functions.
The many types of pancreatic cancer can be divided into two general groups. The vast majority of cases (about 95%) occur in the part of the pancreas which produces digestive enzymes, known as the exocrine component. There are several sub-types of exocrine pancreatic cancers, but their diagnosis and treatment have much in common. The small minority of cancers that arise in the hormone-producing (endocrine) tissue of the pancreas have different clinical characteristics and are called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, sometimes abbreviated as "PanNETs". Both groups occur mainly (but not exclusively) in people over 40, and are slightly more common in men, but some rare sub-types mainly occur in women or children.
The exocrine group is dominated by pancreatic adenocarcinoma (variations of this name may add "invasive" and "ductal"), which is by far the most common type, representing about 85% of all pancreatic cancers. Nearly all these start in the ducts of the pancreas, as pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). This is despite the fact that the tissue from which it arises – the pancreatic ductal epithelium – represents less than 10% of the pancreas by cell volume, because it constitutes only the ducts (an extensive but capillary-like duct-system fanning out) within the pancreas. This cancer originates in the ducts that carry secretions (such as enzymes and bicarbonate) away from the pancreas. About 60–70% of adenocarcinomas occur in the head of the pancreas.
The next most common type, acinar cell carcinoma of the pancreas, arises in the clusters of cells that produce these enzymes, and represents 5% of exocrine pancreas cancers. Like the 'functioning' endocrine cancers described below, acinar cell carcinomas may cause over-production of certain molecules, in this case digestive enzymes, which may cause symptoms such as skin rashes and joint pain.
Cystadenocarcinomas account for 1% of pancreatic cancers, and they have a better prognosis than the other exocrine types.
Pancreatoblastoma is a rare form, mostly occurring in childhood, and with a relatively good prognosis. Other exocrine cancers include adenosquamous carcinomas, signet ring cell carcinomas, hepatoid carcinomas, colloid carcinomas, undifferentiated carcinomas, and undifferentiated carcinomas with osteoclast-like giant cells. Solid pseudopapillary tumor is a rare low-grade neoplasm that mainly affects younger women, and generally has a very good prognosis.
Pancreatic mucinous cystic neoplasms are a broad group of pancreas tumors that have varying malignant potential. They are being detected at a greatly increased rate as CT scans become more powerful and common, and discussion continues as how best to assess and treat them, given that many are benign.
The small minority of tumors that arise elsewhere in the pancreas are mainly pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PanNETs). Neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) are a diverse group of benign or malignant tumors that arise from the body's neuroendocrine cells, which are responsible for integrating the nervous and endocrine systems. NETs can start in most organs of the body, including the pancreas, where the various malignant types are all considered to be rare. PanNETs are grouped into 'functioning' and 'non-functioning' types, depending on the degree to which they produce hormones. The functioning types secrete hormones such as insulin, gastrin, and glucagon into the bloodstream, often in large quantities, giving rise to serious symptoms such as low blood sugar, but also favoring relatively early detection. The most common functioning PanNETs are insulinomas and gastrinomas, named after the hormones they secrete. The non-functioning types do not secrete hormones in a sufficient quantity to give rise to overt clinical symptoms. For this reason, non-functioning PanNETs are often diagnosed only after the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
As with other neuroendocrine tumors, the history of the terminology and classification of PanNETs is complex. PanNETs are sometimes called "islet cell cancers", even though it is now known that they do not actually arise from islet cells as previously thought.