Cancer Council Australia
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Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is the ninth most common cancer in men and tenth most common cancer in women in Australia.1

Unfortunately pancreatic cancer has a low survival rate as it is most often diagnosed at an advanced stage. Pancreatic cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death over all.

Incidence and mortality

In 2011, 2748 new cases of pancreatic cancer were diagnosed in Australia. The risk of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer by age 85 is 1 in 56 for Australian men and 1 in 71 for Australian women.

In 2012, there were 2524 deaths resulting from pancreatic cancer in Australia – over 5% of all cancer deaths.


There is no routine screening test for pancreatic cancer.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms until the cancer is big enough to touch and affect organs nearby.

Early signs of pancreatic cancer include:

  • pain in the upper abdomen
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • weight loss
  • changed bowel motions – either diarrhoea or severe constipation
  • jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes, and dark urine).

Less common signs include:

  • severe back pain
  • onset of diabetes (10-20% of people with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes).

Tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer include:

  • blood tests
  • imaging tests: ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, PET scan
  • tissue sampling tests including fine-needle aspiration (needle biopsy), endoscopy and laparoscopy.


Imaging and tissue sampling tests (above) are used to determine the stage of the cancer.

The staging system used for pancreatic cancer is the TNM system, which describes the stage of the cancer from stage I to stage IV.


The causes of pancreatic cancer are not known, but factors that put some people at higher risk are:

  • smoking
  • age (it occurs mostly in people over the  age of 65)
  • diabetes: pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people who have diabetes
  • a family history of pancreatic, ovarian or colon cancer
  • chronic pancreatitis
  • gastrectomy.


Not smoking or quitting smoking. Smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.


Treatment for pancreatic cancer may include surgery, endoscopic treatment, chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or a combination of these treatments.

For early disease, surgery is the most common treatment – usually the Whipple operation, which is removal of part of the pancreas, the first part of the small bowel (duodenum), part of the stomach and the gall bladder, and part of the bile duct.


An individual's prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer is usually not found until it is advanced. The five year survival rate for people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is around 5%.

For more information, contact Cancer Council 13 11 20 (cost of a local call).

1) Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, which is the most commonly diagnosed cancer according to general practice and hospitals data, however there is no reporting of cases to cancer registries.


For more information


  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2012. Cancer survival and prevalence in Australia: period estimates from 1982 to 2010. Cancer Series no. 69. Cat. no. CAN 65. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2015. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Australasian Association of Cancer Registries 2012. Cancer in Australia: an overview, 2012. Cancer series no. 74. Cat. no. CAN 70. Canberra: AIHW.

This page was last updated on: Friday, March 27, 2015