Pancreatic cancer occurs when the cells in the pancreas grow uncontrollably, forming a tumor. This kind of cancer affects over 53,000 people per year. The pancreas is primarily composed of two different types of cells: exocrine cells that secrete enzymes which help digest food and endocrine cells that form small clusters which make important hormones. Both of these cell types can become cancerous. Exocrine tumors are the most common type of pancreatic cancer and consist primarily of adenocarcinomas. Endocrine tumors, also called neuroendocrine tumors, are less common, making up about 5% of all pancreatic cancers. While pancreatic cancer only accounts for 3% of all diagnosed cancers, many doctors are working to understand where this cancer comes from and search for treatment options.
Cancer arises when mutations to the genetic code, or DNA, disrupt normal cell growth and division. While most mutations are harmless, there are certain mutations that are more likely to lead to cancer. These mutations affect a part of our genetic code called oncogenes, which are regions of DNA that are likely to cause cancer when mutated. One oncogene that is linked to pancreatic cancer is BRCA2. Mutations to this gene often cause the exocrine and endocrine cells to grow uncontrollably. Fortunately, if doctors find a genetic mutation, special treatments that use the tumor's mutation as a weakness can be used. These treatments are often effective when standard chemotherapy is not and cause fewer side effects. For this reason, many pancreatic cancer patients undergo genetic sequencing to find unique genetic mutations that their doctor can use to better combat the cancer.