What is 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 position of the pancreas

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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
The pancreas

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What the pancreas does

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.

Back to Understanding pancreatic cancer

What is cancer?

There are more than 200 different kinds of cancer, each with its own name and treatment.

Types of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancers can be described by where they are found in the pancreas or the type of cells they start from.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer may not cause symptoms for a long time. Common symptoms are pain or discomfort, jaundice and weight loss.