The Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center

What are Tumors?

The word cancer is derived from the Latin word for crab because it grabs onto something and will not let go. The term cancer refers to a new growth which will invade surrounding tissues, metastasize (spread to other organs) and may eventually lead to the patient's death if untreated.

We often hear about cancer from friends and family and in the news. The terms tumor and cancer are sometimes used synonymously which can be misleading. A tumor is not necessarily a cancer. The word tumor simply refers to a mass. For example, a collection of pus is by definition a tumor. A cancer is a particularly threatening type of tumor. It is helpful to keep these distinctions clear when discussing a possible cancer diagnosis.

neoplasm- An abnormal new growth of tissue that grows more rapidly than normal cells and will continue to grow if not treated. These growths will compete with normal cells for nutrients. This is a non-specific term that can refer to benign or malignant growths. A synonym for tumor.
tumor- The more commonly used term for a neoplasm. The word tumor simply refers to a mass. This is a general term that can refer to benign or malignant growths.
benign tumor- A non-malignant/non-cancerous tumor. A benign tumor is usually localized, rarely spreads to other parts of the body and responds well to treatment. However, if left untreated, benign tumors can lead to serious disease.
malignant tumor- Cancer. A malignant tumor is resistant to treatment, may spread to other parts of the body and often recurs after removal.
cancer- A malignant tumor (a malignant neoplasm).

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Cancer of the pancreas strikes approximately 5 out of every 100,000 people every year and is one of the deadliest forms of cancer. It is estimated that this year 32,000 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. An almost equal number of patients (some diagnosed previous to this year) will die from pancreatic cancer during this year.

Cancer of the pancreas is not one disease. In fact, as many as twenty different tumors have been lumped under the umbrella term "cancer of the pancreas." Each of these tumors has a different appearance when examined with a microscope, some require different treatments, and each carries its own unique prognosis. An understanding of the different types of pancreatic tumors is required for rational treatment.

Cancers of the pancreas can be broadly classified as:

primary- those arising from the pancreas itself
metastatic- those arising in other organs and only later spreading to the pancreas

In the vast majority of cases the term "cancer of the pancreas" refers to primary cancers of the pancreas. Primary cancers of the pancreas can be broadly sub-grouped into those that show endocrine differentiation and those that do not. This latter distinction is very important and will greatly impact on treatment and outcome.

Pathologists examine histological slides (slides of tissue samples) microscopically to diagnose pancreatic cancer. To make the cells visible the tissues are stained with various dyes. A change in color from one slide to another does not indicate any disease or abnormality. The different colors indicate that a different dye has been used or a different part of the cells is stained. Pathologists identify abnormalities by changes in the size, shape or arrangement of cells.