Pancreatic cancer is complex

"Each tumour is slightly different and if we can start understanding those differences, we can look for the Achilles heel and target it more specifically."

John McPherson


About Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic Cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in Canada and most people who develop pancreatic cancer do so without any predisposing risk factors. Perhaps the biggest risk factor is increasing age; it typically affects individuals older than 50. It can also appear in younger people, particularly individuals with a family history of the disease. 

Because the pancreas lies deep in the belly in front of the spine, pancreatic cancer often grows silently for months before it is discovered. Early symptoms can be absent or quite subtle. More easily identifiable symptoms develop once the tumor grows large enough to press on other nearby structures such as nerves (which causes pain), the intestines (which affects appetite and causes nausea along with weight loss), or the bile ducts (which causes jaundice or a yellowing of the skin and can cause loss of appetite and itching).

There are two types of cells in the pancreas; at the head of the pancreas are exocrine cells and at the tail of the pancreas are endocrine cells. These cells also have different functions; exocrine cells produce digestive enzymes and endocrine cells produce the hormones, insulin and glucagon. Most pancreatic cancer (95%) starts in the ducts that carry the pancreatic juices, this type is called exocrine pancreatic cancer or adenocarcinoma. Much less often (5%), pancreatic cancer starts in the cells that produce hormones, this type is called neuroendocrine or islet cell cancer; these tumors may be benign or malignant and tend to be slower growing than exocrine tumors.   

Unfortunately, most pancreatic cancer tumors are found after the cancer has grown beyond the pancreas or has metastasized to other places. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, an estimated 5,200 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in 2016. 

Despite significant advancements in the treatments of other cancers, pancreatic cancer remains largely incurable. The majority of cases aren't caught in the early stages when the tumor is most treatable. As a result, only about 8 percent of patients live at least five years after diagnosis and pancreatic cancer remains the only one of the top ten cancers with a five year survival rate still in the single digits. 

Pancreatic cancer is treatable when caught early; approximately 15-20% are fortunate to have this disease caught when the cancer is localized within the pancreas and making them candidates for lifesaving surgery. The 5-year survival rates approach 20% if the cancer is surgically removed while it is small and has not spread to the lymph nodes.

Unless there are breakthroughs in treatment and detection, it is predicted that pancreatic cancer will become the second deadliest cancer in North America surpassing both breast and colorectal cancers.


The McCain Centre for Pancreatic Cancer at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto

The McCain Centre for Pancreatic Cancer is the first of its kind in Canada and provides rapid diagnosis and coordinated care by a dedicated, inter-professional team across all specialties. For patients and their families, this integrated approach is already transforming care delivery by significantly reducing to one week the time required from referral to treatment planning. Previously, this process took many weeks and multiple visits.

To be referred, please ask the referring physician to contact the McCain Centre by fax 416 946 2043 and phone 416 946 2184. These numbers are direct to the McCain Centre.  Here is a link to this page for more information on patient referrals to the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre: Information on patient referrals 

Click here for the international referral form 

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