The pancreas is located across the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach. It is about 6 inches long and shaped like a flat pear. The pancreas has two main functions: 1. it makes enzymes which help digest proteins, fats, and carbohydrates before they can be absorbed in the intestine; and 2. it makes hormones which control how the body stores sugar (glucose) and uses it for energy. The most important hormone of this group is insulin, which is produced by islet cells in the pancreas. People who have difficulty producing enough insulin are diagnosed with diabetes and are treated using medication and lifestyle changes. Only rarely is surgery offered as a treatment.
Producing too much of these hormones can lead to pancreatic tumours which are very rare and sometimes not diagnosed for a long time after symptoms occur. In some cases, a patient’s family members may also have tumors. Many different tumor types are possible and these tumors are named based on the hormone they produce. It is possible for these tumours to spread to other organs, especially the liver.
The most common pancreatic tumours include:
Insulinoma (from too much insulin)
Symptom = Low sugar levels results in dizziness, anxiety, hunger
Gastrinoma (from excess gastrin, a hormone important in digestion)
Symptoms = Stomach ulcers, pain, diarrhea
VIPoma (from too much VIP hormone)
Symptom = Severe watery diarrhea
Somatostatinoma (too much hormone somatostatin)
Symptoms = Diabetes and gallstones
Glucagonoma (too much hormone glucagon)
Symptoms = Diabetes and skin rash
These tumors can occur at any location in the pancreas and many different treatment options exist with different types of surgery.
The Northern Alberta Endocrine Surgery Centre treats all of the above conditions.