The pancreas isn’t seen or felt in our day to day lives, so many people don't know much about the pancreas.

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a long flattened gland that has two functions: it is a vital part of the digestive system and a critical controller of blood sugar levels.

Location of the Pancreas

Where is the pancreas?

The pancreas is located deep in the abdomen (belly).

Part of the pancreas is sandwiched between the stomach and the spine. The other part is nestled in the curve of the duodenum (first part of the small intestine).

Because of its deep location, most tumors of the pancreas cannot be felt when pressing on the abdomen. This leads to late detection, as symptoms of pancreatic cancer usually do not appear until the tumor begins to interfere with the function of the pancreas or other nearby organs such as the stomach, duodenum, liver, or gallbladder.

Try It! Find Your Pancreas

To visualize the position of the pancreas, try this:

Touch your right thumb and right "pinkie" fingers together, keeping the other three fingers together and straight. Then, place your hand in the center of your belly just below your lower ribs with your fingers pointing to your left.

Your hand will be the approximate shape and at the approximate level of your pancreas.

The Parts of the Pancreas

Your doctor may refer to the parts of the pancreas when discussing your disease. The tumor's location in the pancreas is important since it affects the symptoms and treatment of your disease.

Parts of Pancreas

Four Main Parts

  • Head - The head is the widest part of the pancreas. The head of the pancreas is found in the right side of abdomen, nestled in the curve of the duodenum (first part of the small intestine).
  • Neck - The neck is the thin section of the gland between the head and the body of the pancreas.
  • Body - The body is the middle part of the pancreas between the neck and the tail. The superior mesenteric artery and vein run behind this part of the pancreas.
  • Tail - The tail is the thin tip of the pancreas in the left side of the abdomen, in close proximity to the spleen.

[Uncinate process - The uncinate is the part of the head that hooks towards the back of the abdomen around two very important blood vessels—the superior mesenteric artery and the superior mesenteric vein.]

digestive system

How does it all fit together?

The pancreas plays an integral role in the digestive system.

The normal flow of the digestive system works like this: Food is carried from the mouth to the stomach by the esophagus. In the stomach, digestive acids break down the food. The partially digested food flows directly into the first part of the small intestine (the "duodenum"). It is in the duodenum that bile from the liver and digestive enzymes from the pancreas enter the digestive system. The duodenum leads to the other parts of the small bowel where further digestion of food takes place, from there to the large bowel (also known as the large intestine or colon), and finally completely digested material (our poop!) passes out of the body through the anus.

Pancreatic cancer often impacts the digestive system, causing weight loss and/or diabetes. In addition, the flow of the digestive system is often altered during the surgical treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Bile & Jaundice   

bile duct

Bile is a greenish-yellow fluid that aids in the digestion of fats in food.

Bile is important to understand because the flow of bile (the green arrow in the illustration) is often blocked by pancreatic cancers and/or altered during surgery for pancreatic cancer.

Bile is produced by the liver and travels through the bile ducts to the gallbladder, where it is stored. The bile duct then passes through the pancreas on its way to the intestine.

This helps us understand why some people with pancreatic cancer develop jaundice, an abnormal yellowing of the skin and eyes. Pancreatic cancers in the head of the pancreas can block the bile duct, which blocks the bile from flowing out of the liver. The bile backs up and causes jaundice.

Pancreatic Fluid   

Pancreatic fluid

Pancreatic fluid contains the digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas. This fluid is carried by the main pancreatic duct, which is one-sixteenth of an inch in diameter and has many small side branches.

The flow of pancreatic fluid (the brown arrow in the illustration) is often blocked by tumors of the pancreas and/or altered by pancreatic surgery.

Next: Causes & Risk Factors