Which histologic findings are characteristic of pancreatic cancer?

Updated: Oct 02, 2020
  • Author: Tomislav Dragovich, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: N Joseph Espat, MD, MS, FACS  more...
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As previously mentioned, of all pancreatic cancers, 80% are adenocarcinomas of the ductal epithelium. Only 2% of tumors of the exocrine pancreas are benign. Less common histologic appearances of exocrine pancreatic cancers include giant cell carcinoma, adenosquamous carcinoma, microglandular adenocarcinoma, mucinous carcinoma, cystadenocarcinoma, papillary cystic carcinoma, acinar cystadenocarcinoma, and acinar cell cystadenocarcinoma. Very rarely, primary connective tissue cancers of the pancreas can occur. The most common of these is primary pancreatic lymphoma. (See the images below.)

Pancreatic cancer. Hematoxylin and eosin stain of Pancreatic cancer. Hematoxylin and eosin stain of a pancreatic carcinoma. Note the intense desmoplastic response around the neoplastic cells. The large amount of fibrotic reaction in these tumors can make obtaining adequate tissue by fine-needle aspiration difficult.
Pancreatic cancer. Cytologic samples from fine-nee Pancreatic cancer. Cytologic samples from fine-needle aspirations (rapid Papanicolaou stain) of pancreatic adenocarcinomas. (A) Well differentiated, (B) moderately differentiated, (C) moderate to poorly differentiated, (D) poorly differentiated tumor.

Cystic neoplasms of the pancreas account for fewer than 5% of all pancreatic tumors. These consist of benign serous cystadenomas, premalignant mucinous cystadenomas, and cystadenocarcinomas. Intraductal, mucinous pancreatic neoplasms can be benign or malignant and usually manifest as a cystic dilation of the pancreatic ductal system.

Patients can also develop tumors of the islet cells of the pancreas. These can be functionally inactive islet cell carcinomas or benign or malignant functioning tumors, such as insulinomas, glucagonomas, and gastrinomas. An estimated 40% of pancreatic endocrine tumors are nonfunctional; of these, up to 90% are malignant. [55]

Islet cell tumors in patients with inherited syndromes such as multiple endocrine neoplasia are less likely to occur singly than in patients without these syndromes, and in the case of multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1, are more frequently gastrinomas than insulinomas. These variations of tumor function affect diagnosis and treatment strategies. [55]

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