Glossary of Terms
Abdomen The portion of the body between the diaphragm and the pelvis.
Abscess A pus-filled cavity.
Adenocarcinoma

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The form of cancer that most people are talking about when they refer to "cancer of the pancreas." These tumors account for 75% of all pancreas cancers.

Microscopically, adenocarcinomas form glands. These tumors can grow large enough to invade nerves which can cause back pain. They also frequently spread (metastasize) to the liver or lymph nodes. If this happens the tumor may be considered unresectable.
Adenoma A benign (non-cancerous) tumor made up of cells that form glands (collections of cells surrounding an empty space).
Adjuvant chemotherapy Chemotherapy given to patients after their cancers have been surgically removed. It is a secondary treatment given to supplement surgical treatment. (see Neoadjuvant chemotherapy)
Ampulla of Vater This widening of the pancreatic duct is an landmark for physicians. It is where the bile duct and pancreatic duct join before draining into the duodenum (small intestine). Tumors in the head of the pancreas may squeeze this duct partially or completely closed. This can lead to problems with digestion and jaundice.
Anastamosis A surgical joining of two hollow structures. It is similar to attaching two ends of a garden hose. For example, a gastrojejunostomy is a surgical procedure that connects the stomach and the jejunum (small intestine.)
Anemia A condition characterized by a deficiency in red blood cells. This can lead to fatigue among other symptoms.
Anorexia A condition marked by a diminished apetite and aversion to food. Often results in physical signs of wasting.
Angiography A radiographic technique used to visualize blood vessels. A contrast medium (a dye) is usually injected into the vessels to make them appear white on the x-rays.
Aorta The large artery that carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart. It descends into the abdomen where it gives off many branches to supply the organs. The superior mesenteric artery is a major branch of the aorta that is a common site of pancreatic cancer metastases.
Ascites The collection of excess amounts of fluid in the abdominal cavity (belly). It often is a sign that the cancer has spread to either the liver or the portal vein that goes to the liver. If normal liver function is affected, a complex set of biochemical checks and balances is disrupted and abnormal amounts of fluid are retained.
Benign tumors Tumors which are non-cancerous. These generally grow slowly and do not invade adjacent organs or spread (metastasize) beyond the pancreas.
Bile A green fluid produced by the liver that helps digest fats. It is transported from the liver to the duodenum by the bile duct. When the flow of bile is blocked, patients may become jaundiced (yellow skinned).
Bile duct A duct that carries bile from the liver to the intestine. This term may refer to the hepatic, cystic or common bile duct.
Biopsy The removal and microscopic examination of a tissue sample.
Blastoma A primitive tumor that develops in childhood. (pancreatoblastoma)
Body of the pancreas The middle part of gland between the neck and the tail. The superior mesenteric blood vessels run behind this part of the gland.
CA19-9 A blood marker for pancreas cancer. It is not a good screening test for diagnosing possible pancreas cancers. However, it can be useful in following the progress of patients known to have a cancer by measuring how their cancer is responding to treatment.
Cachexia A dramatic weight loss and general wasting that occurs during chronic disease.
Cancer A malignant tumor. It has the potential of invading into the adjacent tissues, spreading to other organs and may eventually lead to the patient's death.
Carcinogen A cancer-causing agent.
Carcinoma A malignant (cancerous) new growth. These tumors infiltrate into surrounding tissues and, if untreated, will spread to other organs, and may eventually lead to the patient's death.
Catheter A small, flexible tube inserted into the body to inject or suck out fluids.
Chemotherapy The treatment of a cancer by chemicals. For pancreatic cancer these include: Gemzar (Gemcitabine), 5-flurouracil, leukovorin, mitomicin C, and others.
Computed Tomography (CT) Scan A series of x-ray pictures taken by a machine that encircles the body like a giant tube. Computers are then used to generate cross-sectional images of the inside of the body.
Contrast agent (or medium) A dye, taken by mouth or injected, that is sometimes used during x-ray examinations to highlight areas that otherwise might not be seen.
Cyst A fluid filled sac. Some tumors of the pancreas, including the serous cystadenoma and mucinous cystadenocarcinomas are cystic. These have a distinct appearance in CT scans. They are important to recognize because the treatment of cystic tumors can differ from that for solid tumors.
Diabetes Mellitus The condition or disease in which the body is unable to appropriately control blood sugar (glucose) levels. This may be caused by failure of the pancreas to produce adequate amounts of insulin.
Diaphragm A dome shaped muscle that separates the lungs and heart from the abdomen. This muscle assists in breathing.
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) The part of every cell that carries all genetic information.
Duct A small anatomic structure. This is essentially a tube that carries various bodily fluids.
Duodenum The first portion of the small intestine. It is about 1 foot long.
-ectomy Surgical removal of a structure or part of a structure. For example, pancreatectomy is the surgical removal of the pancreas (or a portion of it).
Endocrine cells
(endo=within)

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These are specialized cells that produce hormones released into the bloodstream. For example, the islets of Langerhans are endocrine cells in the pancreas that produce the hormone insulin. This hormone helps control blood sugar(glucose) levels.

Some rare tumors of the pancreas, the endocrine (Islet Cell) tumors, can produce these same hormones. It is very important that these rare tumors be properly diagnosed because it will determine the treatment and prognosis.
Endocrinologist A medical doctor who specializes in the treatment of hormonal abnormalities.
Enzyme A chemical that causes a reaction in other substances, in this case as a part of the digestive process.
ERCP
(endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography)
A test used to visualize and examine the pancreas and bile ducts. A tube is inserted through a patient's nose (or throat), down through the esophagus and stomach then into the small intestine (duodenum). There, a small probe is inserted into the ampulla of Vater. A dye is injected through the probe and into the pancreatic and bile ducts. X-rays are then taken and the pancreatic and bile ducts can be seen as white structures (this is because the injected dye is opaque. Because pancreas cancers often block the pancreatic and/or bile ducts, this technique can be useful in establishing a diagnosis of pancreas cancer.
Exocrine cells
(exo= outward)

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The exocrine cells (acinar cells) of the pancreas produce and transport chemicals that will exit the body through the digestive system.

The chemicals that the exocrine cells produce are called enzymes. They are secreted in the duodenum where they assist in the digestion of food.
5-FU (5-fluorouracil) A chemotherapeutic drug used to treat pancreatic cancer
Gallbladder A green pear-shaped organ located on the right side of the abdomen just under the liver. The gallbladder is essentially a reservoir for holding bile.
Gemcitabine See Gemzar, below.
Gemzar (Gemcitabine) The trade name for gemcitabine. A chemotherapy drug frequently used to treat pancreatic cancer. It has been shown, in controlled clinical trials, to improve quality of life.
Glucagon A hormone produced by the endocrine (islets of Langerhans) cells of the pancreas. When blood sugar levels are low, glucagon acts to raise blood sugar levels.
Head of the pancreas The widest part of the pancreas. It is found in the right part of abdomen, nestled in the curve of the duodenum, which forms an impression in the side of the pancreas.
In situ A term used to indicate that cancerous cells are present in the duct but have not spread to the glandular tissue.
Insulin A hormone produced by the endocrine islets of Langerhans cells of the pancreas. It acts to lower blood sugar levels.
Jaundice Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes caused by the accumulation of bile pigments (usually due to an obstruction of the bile ducts).
Laparoscopy A technique that surgeons can use to visualize and even biopsy (take tissue samples of) organs inside of the abdomen without making large incisions. Very small incisions are made in the belly and small tubes (called trocars) are then inserted. Gas is pumped in through one of the tubes to create enough space to work in. The surgeon inserts a small camera through one of the tubes and examines the lining and contents of the abdominal cavity by looking at the projected image on the television screen. With specially designed laparascopic instruments, biopsies and fluid samples can be taken for examination. Some surgeons feel that this technique can help "stage" a patient less invasively than with open surgery.
Liver The largest organ in the body, located in the right upper part of the abdomen. It performs many life-maintaining functions including the production of bile . It detoxifies the blood of drugs, alcohol and other harmful chemicals. It processes nutrients absorbed by the intestine and stores essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Bilirubin is a chemical produced when old or damaged blood cells breakdown. The liver chemically process the bilirubin so that it can dissolve in water and be excreted through the urine. When this process is disrupted, jaundice can develop.
Loco-regional pancreatic cancer A primary cancer that has spread to regional lymph nodes and/or resectable (removable) tissues. Removable tissues include some lymph nodes and parts of the duodenum and stomach that are routinely removed in some surgical treatments for pancreatic cancer.
Lymph nodes Normal, round, raisin to grape-sized collections of lymphocytes (white blood cells) found throughout the body. Lymph nodes are connected to each other by lymphatic vessels. They normally help fight infection, but also are one of the first sites to which cancers spread. In general, the spread of cancer to lymph nodes portends a worse prognosis for the patient. There are exceptions to this.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) A painless method for taking pictures of internal organs. A tube-like machine with a powerful magnet generates images of the inside of the body.
Malignant tumor A cancer that has the potential of invading nearby tissues, spreading to other organs (metastasizing) and possibly leading to the patient's death.
Metastatic cancer A cancer that has spread from one organ to another. Pancreas cancer most frequently metastasizes to the liver. In general, cancers that have metastasized are generally not treated surgically, but instead are treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
Mutation An alteration in the DNA of a cell.
Neck of the pancreas The thin section between the head and the body of the gland.
Neoadjuvant chemo and radiation therapy Chemotherapy and radiation therapy given to patients before surgery. Some centers feel that the use of neoadjuvant therapy improves local and regional control of disease and that it may make more patients surgical candidates.
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 general term that can refer to benign or malignant growths. It is a synonym for the word tumor.
Oncologist A medical doctor who specializes in the treatment of tumors.
-ostomy A surgically created opening in an organ that can also be referred to as an anastamosis.
Pancreas An oblong organ located between the stomach and the spine. The pancreas secretes enzymes needed for the digestion of food and it produces hormones such as insulin and glucagon which help control blood sugar.
Palliative Any treatment that reduces the severity of a disease or its symptoms.
Papillary A term used to describe certain tumors which grow in finger-like projections. Pathologists mostly use this term.
Pathologist A medical doctor specially trained to study disease processes.
Peri-ampullary Around the ampulla of Vater. The peri-ampullary region is comprised of 4 structures; the ampulla, the duodenum, the bile duct and the head of the pancreas. It is sometimes difficult to tell which structure a tumor originated in. In such cases the diagnosis will be a peri-ampullary tumor.
Phytochemistry The biochemical study of plants; concerned with the identification, biosynthesis, metabolism of chemical constituents of plants; especially in regards to natural products.
Primary cancer A cancer in the organ it started in. A primary cancer of the pancreas is one that started in the pancreas as oppossed to a cancer that started somewhere else and only later spread to the pancreas.
Prognosis A forecast for the probable outcome of a disease based on the experience of large numbers of other patients with similar stage disease. Importantly, making a prognosis is not an exact science. Some patients with poor prognosis beat the odds and live longer than anyone would have predicted. Steve Dunn's Cancer Guide has an excellent article on statistics and prognoses and stories of other cancer patients.
Pylorus A thick ring of muscle (a sphincter) between the stomach and duodenum. This sphincter helps control the release of the stomach contents into the small intestine.
Radiation Therapy The use of high-energy waves similar to x-rays to treat a cancer. Radiation therapy is usually used to treat a local area of disease and often is given in combination with chemotherapy.
Resectable Able to be removed surgically.
Sarcoma A malignant tumor that mimics connective tissues (bone, cartilage, muscle) under the microscope.
Sepsis An infection of the blood.
Small intestine A long (20 foot) tube that stretches from the stomach to the large intestine. It helps absorb nutrients from food as the food is transported to the large intestine. There are three sections: the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum. Due to its proximity to the pancreas, the duodenum is the section most often affected by pancreatic cancer.
Spleen A maroon, rounded organ in the upper left part of the abdomen, near the tail of the pancreas. This organ is part of your immune system and filters the lymph and blood in your body.
Squamous cell A flat, scale-like cell.
Stage A classification system used to describe the extent of disease. For pancreatic cancer:
  • Stage I refers to tumors confined to the pancreas and tumors which have only extended into the duodenum, bile duct or soft tissues immediately around the pancreas.

  • Stage II cancers have extended into the spleen, stomach, large intestine or adjacent large vessels.

  • Stage III tumors have spread to regional lymph nodes and

  • Stage IV have spread (metastasized) to distant sites such as the liver.
In general, the lower the stage, the better the prognosis.
Steatorrhea Excessive amounts of fat in the stool. Sometimes this can appear as an oil slick on top of the toilet water after the patient has had a bowel movement.
Stent A slender hollow tube inserted into the body to relieve a blockage. For example, pancreas cancers often grow into the bile duct as it passes through the pancreas. This can block the flow of bile and cause the patient to become jaundiced. In these cases the flow of bile can be reestablished by placing a stent into the bile duct, through the area of blockage.
Tail of the pancreas The thin tip of gland in the left part of abdomen, near the spleen.
Thromboplebitis An inflammation of the veins accompanied by thrombus formation. It is sometimes referred to as Trousseau's sign.
Thrombus A clot within the cardiovascular system. It may occlude (block) the vessel or may be attached to the wall of the vessel without blocking the blood flow.
Tumor This term simply refers to a mass or neoplasm. For example, a collection of pus is a tumor. This is a general term that can refer to benign or malignant growths.
Ultrasound A painless procedure in which high frequency sound waves are used to generate pictures of the inside of the body.
Uncinate process of the pancreas The part of the gland that bends backwards and underneath the body of the pancreas. Two very important blood vessels, the superior mesenteric artery and vein, cross in front of this process.
Unresectable Unable to be surgically removed.
Vaccine therapy This is a new type of treatment, largely still experimental. It is a medication made of killed or weakened cells, organisms or manufactured materials, which is used to boost the body's immune system. Ideally, this will allow the body to fight and kill the cancer cells more effectively. Vaccines include whole killed cancer cells or specific proteins from the cancer.

This is an area of ongoing research at Johns Hopkins.
Whipple procedure There are several variations of this procedure. It typically involves the surgical removal of the head of the pancreas, a portion of the duodenum and a portion of the bile ducts.
Reference: The Johns Hopkins Family Health Book; Michael J. Klag Editor, Harper Collins Pub., 1999.