Pancreatic cancer is rare

Pancreatic cancer

The pancreas

The pancreas is located in the back of the abdominal cavity between the stomach and the spine. The liver, intestines and other organs are right next to it.

The pancreas is about six to eight inches long and is divided into three sections: the head, body, and tail.

The pancreas has two important roles:

  • It makes digestive juices for the intestines.
  • It makes the hormones insulin and glucagon, which regulate blood sugar levels.

Cancer of the pancreas

When cells in the body multiply unchecked, they displace healthy body tissue. A tumor develops. If the cancer originates in the cells of the pancreas, the technical term for it is pancreatic carcinoma. Most often, the cancer occurs in the head of the pancreas. When pancreatic cancer spreads, metastases often settle in the lungs, liver, or bones.

Compared to common cancers, pancreatic cancer is rare. Every year around 16,000 people in Germany develop it, but around 65,000 from colon cancer. Men and women are affected roughly equally. Men become ill on average at 71 years of age, women at 75.

Cancer of the pancreas is usually discovered late and then has unfavorable prospects for a cure. But that says nothing about the course of your personal illness. This depends, among other things, on how aggressive the cancer is and how far it has progressed.

Is early detection possible?

Experts have not found any evidence that screening tests can affect disease progression or reduce mortality. This applies, for example, to imaging methods such as CT or the determination of tumor markers in the blood. Some of the test results are imprecise and may cause concern for those affected. Therefore, early detection is not recommended here.


In the beginning, pancreatic cancer is rarely noticeable. As it progresses, it causes symptoms, some of which are more general and can also indicate other diseases: for example pain in the upper abdomen or back, weakness, foul-smelling diarrhea, unwanted weight loss, nausea or itchy skin.

The following signs are suspicious of cancer of the pancreas - have them checked by a doctor:

  • persistent upper abdominal or back pain that occurs along with other complaints

  • Yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes (jaundice) without pain

  • in people over the age of 50: an inflammation of the pancreas, the cause of which is unknown


Surgery is usually the only way to cure pancreatic cancer. The prerequisite for this is that the cancer can be completely removed and has not yet spread. Surgery is possible in around 1 in 5 people. The surgical team partially or completely removes the pancreas, depending on the location and extent of the cancer. If adjacent organs are affected, some of them are also removed.

Subsequent treatment with medication (chemotherapy) sometimes improves the course of the disease.

If the cancer has spread, it is probably no longer curable. Drugs can temporarily stop cancer growth to extend life and maintain quality of life. This treatment can be very stressful. It is recommended when your physical condition allows it.

Some people are very weak from illness and previous treatments. Then it is more helpful just to alleviate the discomfort.

Other measures can also help, for example nutritional advice and mental support.

Your treatment team should work with you to tailor the therapy to your physical strength and needs. The advantages and disadvantages of the treatment options are described in detail in the patient guidelines (see "Explained in detail" below).

What you can do yourself

  • Think about the burdens you want to take on with a treatment. You can also cancel a treatment.
  • Take the time you need to talk to people who are close to you or who have had similar experiences.
  • You don't have to endure pain. They can be effectively alleviated with the right treatment.
  • Let your family know how you are feeling and what is good for you and what isn't.

  • Have your blood sugar checked regularly. Pancreatic disease can result in diabetes, which requires treatment.

April 2019, published by the German Medical Association and the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians