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.

The position of the pancreas

The pancreas has three 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.

The pancreas

What does the pancreas do?

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

Pancreatic juices

Pancreatic juices help the body digest food, especially fats. The juices are made in cells called exocrine cells. Most cells in the pancreas are exocrine cells.

The pancreatic juices travel through small tubes (ducts) in the pancreas into a larger duct. This larger duct is 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 pancreatic juices 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.

Pancreatic cells called endocrine cells make insulin. The 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

    British Society of Gastroenterology. Guidelines for the management of patients with pancreatic cancer peri-ampullary and ampullary carcinomas. 2005.

    European Society for Medial Oncology. Cancer of the pancreas: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2015. 26 (Supplement 5): v56 to v68.

    Fernandez-del Castillo. Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging of exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate online. Jan 2018.

    Fernandez-del Castillo C, et al. Supportive care of the patient with locally advanced or metastatic exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate online. Feb 2017. 

    Winter JM, et al. Cancer of the pancreas, DeVita Hellman and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition). Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. 2016.

  • 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.