The pancreas

The pancreas is part of the digestive system. It is in the upper part of the tummy (abdomen).

About the pancreas

The pancreas is part of the digestive system. It is in the upper part of the tummy (abdomen), behind the stomach and in front of the spine. It is level with where your ribs meet at the front of your body. It is about 15cm (6 inches) long.


Position of the pancreas
Image: Position of the pancreas



The pancreas has 3 main parts:

  • the head of the pancreas – the large, rounded section next to the first part of the small bowel (called the duodenum)
  • the body of the pancreas – the middle part
  • the tail of the pancreas – the narrow part on your left side.

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas makes digestive juices, called enzymes, and hormones including insulin. Hormones act as chemical messengers in the body. They control how different organs work.


The pancreas
Image: The pancreas


Digestive enzymes help the body digest food, especially fats. The enzymes are made by the pancreas in cells called exocrine cells. Most cells in the pancreas are exocrine cells. The others are called endocrine cells.

The enzymes travel through the pancreas in small tubes called ducts. They move into a larger duct called the pancreatic duct. It joins with the common bile duct, which carries bile from the liver and gall bladder. Together they empty into the small bowel through an opening called the ampulla of Vater. The enzymes and bile flow into the duodenum, where they help digest food.

Insulin is a hormone that controls the amount of sugar in the blood. It helps move sugar into the body's cells, so we can convert it into energy.

The pancreas makes insulin in the endocrine cells. The endocrine cells group together in small clusters called islets of Langerhans. These cells release insulin directly into the blood.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our pancreatic cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    European Society for Medical Oncology, Cancer of the pancreas: ESMO clinical Practice Guidelines. Volume 26, Supplement 5, V56-V68, 1 September 2015. Available from: (accessed May 2021).

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Pancreatic cancer in adults: diagnosis and management. NICE guideline (NG85). Published 7 February 2018. Available at: (accessed May 2021).

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 05 January 2022
Next review: 05 January 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

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