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What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells develop in part of the pancreas. This may affect how the pancreas works, including the functioning of the exocrine or endocrine glands. Pancreatic cancer can occur in any part of the pancreas, but about 70% of pancreatic cancers are located in the head of the pancreas.

Exocrine tumours make up more than 95% of pancreatic cancers. The most common type, an adenocarcinoma, starts in the cells lining the pancreatic duct.

About 5% of pancreatic cancers are pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (NETs). These start in the endocrine cells.

It is estimated that more than 4,500 people were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2023. The average age at diagnosis is 72 years old.

Pancreatic cancer is the eighth most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, and it is estimated that one in 70 people will be diagnosed by the time they are 85.

Pancreatic cancer signs and symptoms

Early-stage pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms. Symptoms often only appear once the cancer is large enough to affect nearby organs, or has spread.

Symptoms can include:

  • pain in the abdomen
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • weight loss
  • change in bowel habit including diarrhoea, constipation or the feeling of incomplete emptying
  • jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes, and dark urine)..

Less common signs include:

  • severe back pain
  • onset of diabetes (10-20% of people with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes).

Causes of pancreatic cancer

Some factors that can increase your risk of pancreatic cancer include:

  • smoking tobacco
  • age – most cases occur in adults over the age of 60
  • diabetes, particularly newly diagnosed diabetes
  • a family history of pancreatic, ovarian or colon cancer
  • chronic pancreatitis
  • excessive alcohol consumption
  • obesity.

Diagnosis of throat cancer

Tests to diagnose pharyngeal or laryngeal cancer may include:

Physical examination

Your doctor will examine your mouth, throat and neck and may insert a gloved finger into your mouth to examine areas that are difficult to see.

Blood tests

Samples may be taken to check your general health.


The doctor will remove a small sample of tissue or cells for examination under a microscope to see if cancer cells are present.

Endoscopy of the larynx

A  thin tube with a light on its end (endoscope) will be inserted through the nose to look for abnormalities in the throat.


A small device called a transducer is used to send out soundwaves that echo when they hit something dense such as an organ or tumour.


You may have a chest x-ray to check your overall health or to see if cancer has spread to the lungs.

CT scan

A CT (computerised tomography) scan uses x-ray beams to create detailed cross-sectional images of inside your body.


An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan uses magnet and radio waves to create detailed images of the inside of your body.

PET scan

A PET (positron emission tomography) scan combined with a CT scan, is often recommended. Radioactive material is injected into the body to help show cancer cells.

After a diagnosis of throat cancer

After finding out you have throat cancer, you may experience a range of emotions such as disbelief, confusion and sadness and feelings of loss of control. These reactions are normal and you may find it helpful to talk to family and friends about how you feel.

Talk to your doctor about treatments that are available to you, potential side effects and how soon you should start treatment. Take as much time as you can before making a decision.

Treatment for pancreatic cancer


Imaging and tissue sampling tests (above) are used to determine the stage of the cancer.

The staging system used for pancreatic cancer is the TNM system, which describes the stage of the cancer from stage I to stage IV.

Types of treatment

Treatment for pancreatic cancer may include surgery, endoscopic treatment, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or a combination of these treatments.

For early disease, surgery is the most common treatment – usually the Whipple operation, which is the removal of part of the pancreas, the first part of the small bowel (duodenum), part of the stomach and the gall bladder, and part of the bile duct.

For advanced pancreatic cancer, surgery may not be possible. Treatment is often to relieve symptoms such as pain and digestive problems.

Palliative care

In some cases of pancreatic cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer without aiming to cure it.

As well as slowing the spread of pancreatic cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.

Treatment Team

Depending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of different health professionals, such as:

  • GP (General Practitioner) – looks after your general health and works with your specialists to coordinate treatment.
  • Gastroenterologist – specialises in diseases of the digestive system.
  • Endocrinologist- specialises in diagnosing and treating disorders of the endocrine (hormonal) system.
  • Pancreatic surgeon- specialises in surgery to the liver and pancreas.
  • Radiation oncologist – prescribes and coordinates radiation therapy treatment.
  • Medical oncologist – prescribes and coordinates the course of chemotherapy.
  • Cancer nurse – assists with treatment and provides information and support throughout your treatment.
  • Other allied health professionals – such as social workers, pharmacists, and counsellors.

Screening for pancreatic cancer

There is currently no national screening program for pancreatic cancer available in Australia.

Preventing pancreatic cancer

People with certain risk factors are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Not smoking or quitting smoking reduces your risk. Smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

Other known risk factors are listed above.

Prognosis for pancreatic cancer

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You will need to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is impossible for any doctor to predict the exact course of your disease. Test results, the type, stage and location of the cancer; and other factors such as your age, fitness and medical history are all important when working out your prognosis.

Most pancreatic cancers are not found until they are advanced as symptoms can be vague or go unnoticed. If the cancer is diagnosed early and can be surgically removed, the prognosis can be better.


    • Understanding Pancreatic Cancer, Cancer Council Australia © 2020. Last medical review of source booklet: February 2020.”
    • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer data in Australia [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2023 [cited 2023 Sept 04]. Available from:

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