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Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate among all main cancer types. It is the third leading cause of cancer death in Australia. Presently, only 5% of patients respond to current treatment options, and for most people diagnosed, life expectancy is 6-12 months. However, they can often only have a few months, making pancreatic cancer one of the most deadly.


​In Australia, it’s estimated that 4,534 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2022 and that 3,531 people will die.​


Pancreatic Cancer occurs when pancreatic cells become abnormal and grow out of control to form a tumour. There are two main types of pancreatic cancer, exocrine or endocrine. 


  • Exocrine tumours start in the exocrine cells. The vast majority (95%) of pancreatic cancers are classified as pancreatic exocrine cancer or pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), which most commonly begin in the cells that line the ducts of the pancreas.

  • Neuroendocrine tumours (also called endocrine tumours) start in the hormone-producing cells and account for only 5% of all pancreatic cancers.


Pancreatic Cancer is often difficult to diagnose due to the location of the pancreas – deep within the abdomen, and the variance in symptoms dependent upon the tumour location. This often results in the tumours being discovered at an advanced stage. Exocrine tumours such as PDAC are aggressive and difficult to treat and generally have a far worse prognosis than pancreatic endocrine tumours.  One of the major challenges associated with pancreatic cancer is that the condition often goes undetected for a long period of time because signs and symptoms seldom occur until advanced stages. By the time symptoms occur, cancer cells are likely to have spread (metastasised) to other parts of the body, often preventing surgical removal of tumours. 

Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer

The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is yet to be determined. However, genetics appear to play a large role, as they do with other cancers. People with family members who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are at a greater risk of developing it themselves. 

Age. The vast majority of cases of pancreatic cancer occur in individuals aged 65 years and older. 

Excess alcohol. People who drink 9 or more alcoholic drinks every day are at increased risk for developing pancreatic cancer. 

Cigarette smoking. Smokers are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers. Smoking is the single greatest risk factor, associated with almost one-third of all cases of pancreatic cancer. 

Diabetes. Multiple large studies have shown that people diagnosed with diabetes (abnormal glucose metabolism) are at significantly increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. 

Weight. Multiple large studies have shown that people who are obese, with a body mass index (BMI) 30 or greater, are at increased risk for developing pancreatic cancer (a large study showed that the risk was 47% greater compared to people who were not obese). 

Diet. Diets high in animal fats and low in fruits and vegetables are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. A large study has also shown that consumption of processed meat and red meat is associated with an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer 

Chemical exposure. Individuals working with petroleum agents such as gasoline and fuel oils are at increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. 

Bacteria. Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a bacterium that can infect the gut, and it is one of the most common gut infections in humans. More than half of the world's population is infected with it and 15 per cent of Australians are estimated to have it. The prevalence is much higher among Indigenous Australians and in developing countries H. pylori is well known to cause ulcers, but many studies are now linking it to the development of pancreatic cancer.  

ABO blood type has also been shown to be associated with a risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

In many cases, there are no symptoms of pancreatic cancer until it’s later stages. The following is a list of symptoms that could indicate pancreatic cancer, but many other conditions can present with similar symptoms.

If you exhibit any of the below symptoms, contact your physician as soon as possible:

  • Upper abdominal pain that may extend to the middle or upper back 

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Jaundice—yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. This condition is fairly common among patients with pancreatic cancer and develops when blood cells become worn out and break down into bilirubin. Normally, bilirubin is eliminated in the bile, which is a fluid produced by the liver. However, if a pancreatic tumour blocks the flow of bile, jaundice may occur. Severe itching may occur, owing to a build-up of bile acids. 

  • Nausea and vomiting can occur during later stages if a pancreatic tumour has grown sufficiently large to block a portion of the digestive tract (usually the duodenum). 

  • Digestive problems can occur because the pancreas is an integral part of the digestive system.

Pancreatic Cancer
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