Glossary For Pancreatic Cancer Research



We’ve compiled a list of commonly used terms for easy reference.


  • Abdomen – The belly; the part of the body that contains all of the structures between the chest and pelvis.
  • Acinar cells – Special cells in the pancreas that produce digestive enzymes.
  • Acquired mutations – Genetic changes that develop during a person’s lifetime, either as a random error made in DNA copying or as a result of harmful environmental factors that damage DNA.
  • Active immunotherapy – Activation of specialized immune cells to recognize and destroy abnormal chemicals in tumor cells.
  • Acupuncture – Practice of inserting needles through the skin into specific points on the body to reduce pain and anxiety or induce anesthesia.
  • Acute pain – Sudden, short-lived pain that subsides when healing occurs.
  • Adenocarcinoma – Cancer that that have gland-like properties.
  • Adjuvant drug – A drug that, when added to another drug, speeds or improves its effect.
  • Adjuvant therapy – A treatment given after surgery.
  • Advance directives – Documents involved in a patient’s healthcare that allow others to know which types of care that patient wants and do not want, or to determine who will make medical decisions if the patient is unable to do so.
  • Alcohol nerve block – Procedure in which a local anesthetic is injected into the nerve root of the celiac plexus using guidance by ultrasonography or computed tomography to produce numbness or reduce pain. Alcohol nerve block involves alcohol injection, not a local anesthetic.
  • Alternative therapy – Treatments that have not been scientifically tested and which are used in place of traditional therapies. (See also Unconventional Therapy.)
  • Ampulla of Vater –The point in the duodenum where the ducts from the liver and pancreas enter the small intestine; bile from the liver and secretions from the pancreas come through the Ampulla of Vater to mix with food in the duodenum and aid in digestion.
  • Analgesic – A drug that reduces pain: acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin are analgesics.
  • Angiogenesis – Formation of new blood vessels; some cancer treatments work by blocking angiogenesis, called antiangiogenesis, with the goal of slowing or preventing tumor growth.
  • Anticonvulsants – Drugs used to prevent or treat seizures; they may also be used to enhance the effect of pain medications.
  • Antidepressants – Drugs used to treat depression; they may also be used to enhance the effect of pain medications.
  • Antiemetics – Drugs that help to prevent and control nausea and vomiting.


  • Benign – Not cancerous; benign tumors do not spread to tissues near them or to other parts of the body.
  • Bile – Green fluid made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder; bile is excreted into the small intestine, where it helps digest fat.
  • Bile duct – A tube from the liver through which bile passes.
  • Bilirubin – Dark-green substance formed when red blood cells are broken down; bilirubin is part of the bile; the abnormal buildup of bilirubin because of an obstruction causes jaundice.
  • Bioelectromagnetic-based therapy –Involves the use of pulsed energy or magnetic fields to change the body’s electromagnetic fields, and treat illness.
  • Biofield therapy – Various forms of energy work to assist in healing.
  • Biopsy – Process of removing small tissue samples, which are then examined under a microscope by a pathologist to check for disease. Biopsy specimen – Tissue removed from the body and examined under a microscope to determine whether disease is present.
  • BRCA1 gene – A gene that normally helps to repair certain types of DNA damage; a person who inherits an altered mutant version of this gene has a higher risk of getting breast, ovarian, or prostate cancer, and possibly pancreatic cancer.
  • BRCA2 gene – A gene that normally helps to repair certain types of DNA damage; a person who inherits altered mutant version of this gene has a higher risk of getting breast, ovarian, prostate, or pancreatic cancer.
  • Brush biopsy – A procedure used with endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP); a small brush is inserted through an endoscope and into the bile duct and pancreatic duct to scrape the inside of the ducts to collect cells for examination.



  • Cancer – Any of a group of diseases in which the cells are abnormal, grow out of control, and can spread.
  • Cancer antigen 19-9 (CA 19-9) – A protein on the surface of cells, particularly cancerous cells, that is shed into the bloodstream; higher-than-normal amounts of CA 19-9 in the blood can sometimes be a sign of colorectal or pancreatic cancer.
  • Cancer stem cells – Subpopulation of cancer cells hypothesized to be responsible for starting and maintaining the cancer.
  • Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) – A protein that may sometimes be found in the blood of people who have certain types of cancers, and not usually found in healthy persons.
  • Caregivers – Persons who provide help with daily activities, coordinate healthcare and other services, and provide emotional and other types of support for patients.
  • Catheter – A flexible tube used to deliver fluids into, or withdraw fluids out of, the body.
  • Celiac plexus – Complex network of nerves in the abdomen.
  • ChemoradiationRadiation therapy used in combination with chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy – Use of drugs to kill cancer cells.
  • Chiropractic – A health professional concerned with the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mechanical disorders of the muscles and bones, and the effects of these disorders on the function of the nervous system and general health; it emphasizes manual treatments, including spinal manipulation.
  • Chronic pain – Pain that occurs over a long period of time that may range from mild to severe.
  • Chronic pancreatitis – Condition in which inflammation irreversibly damages the pancreas; or chronic damage with persistent pain or malabsorption.
  • Clinical trial – The study of a drug, procedure, or medical device to determine its safety and effectiveness in people; there are many types of clinical trials used to find better ways to prevent, screen for, diagnose, and treat disease, and to improve quality of life. (See also Phases.)
  • Co-existing condition – Occurring at the same time but independent of another condition or illness.
  • Contrast agent – A dye or other compound injected into the body to make specific tissues more visible during diagnostic imaging.
  • Complementary therapy – Treatment methods added to conventional or traditional therapy.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan – Medical imaging test in which a scanner takes detailed, cross-sectional, X-ray images from many different angles that are combined by a computer.
  • Constipation – A condition of the digestive system in which a person experiences hard stools that are difficult to eliminate; constipation may be painful and, in severe cases, may lead to a blockage of the bowel.
  • Coping – How people or family members come to terms with an illness, make decisions, solve problems, and adapt to life’s changes, while still feeling good about themselves.
  • Corticosteroids – Drugs that reduce swelling and inflammation.


  • Diabetes mellitus – Disease in which the body does not properly control the amount of sugar in the blood, resulting in high levels of blood sugar; it occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin or does not use it properly.
  • Distal pancreatectomy – Surgical procedure in which the tail and body of the pancreas are removed, usually along with the entire spleen; sometimes, part of the body of the pancreas can be preserved.
  • DNA – Deoxyribonucleic acid; DNA is the molecule in the cell nucleus that carries the instructions for making living organisms.
  • Dual-phase helical CT scan – Imaging test for evaluating patients suspected of having pancreatic cancer; this type of computed tomography scan can detect about 98 percent of pancreatic cancers.
  • Duct – A channel leading from an exocrine gland or organ.
  • Duodenum – The first part of the small intestine that connects to the stomach.
  • Durable power of attorney for healthcare – The legal designation of a person responsible to make medical decisions for a patient when that patient is unable to do so.



  • Efficacy – Effectiveness; the power to produce a desired result.
  • Endocrine gland – A gland that secretes its hormone directly into the bloodstream that flows through it, rather than through an opening; endocrine tissue comprises 5 percent of the pancreas.
  • Endocrinologist – A physician who specializes in disorders of glands of the endocrine system.
  • Endoscope – Thin, tube-like instrument used to look at tissues inside the body; an endoscope has a light and a lens for viewing and may have a tool to remove tissue.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) – Minimally invasive procedure during which a thin, lighted tube is passed down the throat, through the stomach and small intestine, and into the bile duct and pancreatic duct to view them for obstruction and to take X-rays.
  • Endoscopic ultrasonography (EUS) – Procedure in which an endoscope is inserted down the throat and into the stomach and duodenum; a probe at the end of the endoscope is used to bounce high-energy sound waves off internal organs to make images.
  • EnzymesProteins naturally produced by the body that speed up chemical reactions in the body; enzymes help the body with functions such as digesting food.
  • Esophagus – The tube that connects the throat with the stomach; the esophagus lies between the trachea (windpipe) and the spine; it passes down the neck, passes through the diaphragm, and joins the upper end of the stomach.
  • Exocrine gland – A gland that secretes its fluid through a duct; exocrine tissue comprises 95 percent of the pancreas.
  • External beam radiation therapy – Treatment for cancer in which a beam of high-dose radiation is focused on the tumor from outside of the body.



  • Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome – Genetic syndrome in which many different-sized, asymmetrical, raised skin moles are present; is associated with an increased risk of melanoma and of pancreatic cancer.
  • Familial breast cancer syndrome – People who have a breast cancer gene (BRCA2, BRCA1 or PALB2) mutation have an increased risk of several cancers, among them breast and pancreatic cancer.
  • Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy – Technique in which a thin needle is inserted into a tumor; cells are removed and examined under a microscope.
  • First-degree relative – Parents, children, or siblings of an individual.



  • Gallbladder – Pear-shaped organ located under the liver in which bile is concentrated and stored.
  • Gastroenterologist – A physician who specializes in disorders of the digestive system.
  • Gene – The functional and physical unit of heredity passed from parent to child; most genes contain the information for making a specific protein; genes are composed of DNA.



  • Healthcare proxy – A person chosen by the patient to make medical decisions for that patient.
  • Hepatitis – Inflammation of the liver.
  • Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome) – Syndrome in which there is a higher-than-normal chance of developing colon, pancreatic, uterine, stomach, or ovarian cancer.
  • Hereditary pancreatitis – Rare disease in which patients inherit a gene mutation (in genes such as PRSS1 and SPINK1) that predisposes them to develop episodes of recurrent pancreatitis at an early age.
  • Homeopathic medicine – System of medicine based on the premise that “like cures like”; practitioners believe that a substance that produces a set of symptoms in a healthy person will, in small doses, cure those symptoms in a person with a disease.
  • Hospice – Concept of care that emphasizes palliative care rather than cures, quality of life over quantity, and comfort measures for patients provided at home, at a hospice facility, or in a hospital.



  • Ileum – The last part of the small intestine, located beyond the duodenum and jejunum. The ileum drains into the large intestine (the colon).
  • Imaging tests – Methods used to produce pictures of internal body structures; for example, X-ray films, ultrasonography, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • Informed consent – Process in which a person is given important facts, such as the risks and benefits, about a medical procedure or treatment or a clinical trial before deciding whether to participate.
  • Inherited mutationsDNA mutations carried in a person’s reproductive cells and potentially passed on to that person’s children.
  • Insulin – A hormone made by islet cells of the pancreas that controls the amount of sugar in the blood by promoting the movement of sugar into the cells, where it can be used for energy.
  • Integrative therapy – Combined use of a proven treatment and a complementary therapy.
  • Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm (IPMN) – A tumor of the pancreas that produces mucus that can clog and enlarge the pancreatic duct; IPMNs may progress to invasive pancreatic cancer if left untreated.
  • Intrathecal injection – Injection into the space surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
  • Intravenous injection – Injection directly into a vein.
  • Islets of Langerhans – Collections (“islands”) of cells in the pancreas that produce insulin and glucagon, important regulators of sugar metabolism.




  • Jaundice – Condition in which the skin and the whites of the eyes become yellow, urine may become dark, and stool may become clay-colored; occurs when the liver is not working properly or a bile duct is blocked.
  • Jejunum – Portion of the small intestine that extends from the duodenum to the ileum.




  • KRAS oncogene – A gene capable of causing cancer when altered; the most common genetic mutation found in pancreatic cancer is a KRAS gene mutation.  



  • Laparoscope – Small telescope-like instrument connected to a video monitor.
  • Laparoscopic ultrasonography – Procedure that uses a laparoscope, inserted through the abdominal wall, and is guided by ultrasonography.
  • Laparoscopy – Procedure during which a laparoscope is inserted through a small incision in the abdomen by which the internal organs can be viewed and tissue samples removed for examination.
  • Living will – One of several documents called advance directives that designate what kind of medical care a patient wants, or does not want, in the event the patient cannot speak for himself or herself.
  • Lymph nodes – Small, bean-shaped structures in the neck, underarm, groin, chest, abdomen, pelvis, near the pancreas, and throughout the body; they store white blood cells. Cancer cells can spread to lymph nodes.
  • Lymphatic fluid – Fluid that circulates through the lymph vessels and empties into blood vessels in the upper chest.
  • Lymphatic system – The body’s complex set of lymph nodes, lymph cells, and lymph vessels that fight infection and disease.
  • Lymphocyte – A type of white blood cell that helps fight infection and disease.




  • Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) – Imaging method that is safe and fast; a form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used to view the bile duct and pancreatic duct.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – Imaging method that uses powerful magnets to view internal organs and structures; the energy from the magnets is absorbed by the body and released; a computer translates the energy patterns into detailed images of areas inside the body.
  • Malignant – Cancerous; malignant tumors can invade and destroy nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.
  • Medical oncologist – A physician who is trained to prescribe anticancer medications.
  • Melanoma – Serious form of skin cancer that make the pigment melanin.
  • Metastatic – Cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body from the original tumor site.
  • Multidisciplinary care – Team approach to the care of patients with cancer in which many different areas of specialization join to provide their expertise and experience.
  • Multidetector row helical CT (MDCT) scan – Helical CT scanner with multiple detector rows; advantages over other CT scanners include improved image resolution and rapid scanning of large volumes.
  • Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 syndrome (MEN1; Wermer’s syndrome) – A rare, inherited disorder that affects the endocrine glands and can cause endocrine tumors in the pancreas and other organs, which usually are not cancerous.
  • Mutations – Errors in the DNA code that occur in the process of cell replication and division; certain mutations may lead to cancer or other diseases. (See also Inherited Mutations and Acquired Mutations.)




  • Naturopathic medicine – Practitioners work with patients to provide nutritional and lifestyle counseling using dietary supplements, medicinal plants, and traditional Chinese medicine.
  • Neoadjuvant therapy – A treatment given before surgery.
  • Neoplasm – New growth; a tumor that may be benign or malignant.
  • Nerve block – Procedure in which a local anesthetic is injected around a nerve to produce numbness or pain reduction.
  • Neuroablation – Cutting or destroying part of pain fibers to help control pain.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – Drugs that reduce inflammation and pain.




  • Oncology nurses – Nurses with specialized training in managing the treatment and care of patients with cancer; they may administer chemotherapy drugs, help in the management of side effects, and provide patient education.
  • Oncology social workers – Social workers professionally trained to counsel patients with cancer and help provide practical assistance, e.g., by helping patients find support groups and locate services.
  • Opioids – Strongest pain relievers available.
  • Osteopathic – Form of conventional medicine that emphasizes diseases arising in the musculoskeletal system.




  • Palliative care – Healthcare that specializes in the relief of suffering and improvement in quality of life. In some instances, palliative care has been shown to prolong life.
  • Palliative surgery – Any noncurative surgical procedure that may be used in patients with pancreatic cancer to help relieve symptoms such as jaundice, nausea, vomiting, and pain to improve quality of life.
  • Pancreas – An organ of the digestive system located deep in the abdomen that produces both pancreatic enzymes to aid in the digestion of food and hormones such as insulin to control blood sugar levels.
  • Pancreatic duct – Main duct that runs along the entire length of the pancreas and merges with the bile duct.
  • Pancreatic enzymesProteins produced by the pancreas to aid in the digestion of food.
  • Pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia (PanIN) – Lesions too small to see with the naked eye that can progress to invasive pancreatic cancer over time.
  • Pancreaticoduodenectomy (See Whipple procedure.)
  • Pancreatitis – Inflammation of the pancreas.
  • Pathologist – A physician trained to examine cells under a microscope for the diagnosis of cancer and other diseases.
  • Patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) – Method of pain relief, commonly used after pancreatic surgery in the immediate post-operative period, in which the patient controls the amount of pain medication by pressing a button on a computerized pump connected to a small tube in the body; patients cannot use more than the prescribed amount because the device is programmed for a maximum dosage.
  • Peritoneum – Membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and covers most of the abdominal organs.
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS) – Genetic disorder characterized by polyps of the intestine and dark spots in the mouth and on the fingers, and that increases the risk of developing many types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer.
  • Phases of clinical trials – Sequential steps of clinical trials designed to answer specific questions and build on information from the previous phase.
  • Phase 1 – Determines the side effects of a new drug by gradually increasing the dosage and analyzing patients’ responses.
  • Phase 2 – Determines if the new drug has the potential to be better than current treatments.
  • Phase 3 – Determines if the treatment is better than, as good as, or not as good as the accepted standard treatment.
  • Physician assistant – Trained professional who has completed an accredited program and is board-certified to perform certain duties of a physician, under the supervision of a licensed physician; some duties include history-taking, physical examination, and minor surgical procedures.
  • Placebo – A substance that has no active ingredient.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET scan) – Imaging test in which a small amount of radioactive glucose is injected into a vein, a camera detects the radioactivity, and a computer generates detailed images; because cancer cells absorb much more glucose than normal cells, images created by a PET scan can be used to find cancer cells in the pancreas and other parts of the body.
  • Power of attorney – Legal document that appoints a person to make financial decisions for the patient when the patient is unable to.
  • Protein – A molecule made up of amino acids needed for the body to function properly; proteins are the basis of body structures such as the skin and hair, and of substances such as enzymes.
  • Proven therapy – A conventional, traditional, or standard treatment that has been tested and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
  • Pylorus-preserving Whipple procedure – Surgical procedure in patients with pancreatic cancer that removes most of the duodenum, the head of the pancreas, part of the bile duct, the gallbladder, and lymph nodes in the area of the pancreas; in this procedure, the stomach is spared.



  • Quackery – Promotion of treatments known to be false but that claim to prevent, diagnose, or cure cancer.
  • Questionable therapy – Unproven or untested treatments.




  • Radiation oncologist – A physician trained in treating cancer with high-dose X-rays.
  • Radiation therapy – Also called radiotherapy; treatment of cancer with irradiation.
  • Radioactive – Giving off radiation.
  • Radioactive glucose – Sugar injected into the body to make specific tissues more visible during a PET scan.
  • Radiologist – A physician trained to interpret many different imaging techniques.
  • Radiotherapy – Also called radiation therapy; treatment of cancer with irradiation.
  • Risk factors – Characteristics, habits, or environmental exposures shown to increase the odds of developing a disease. Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer.


  • Signs – Any objective evidence of a disease (e.g., evidence perceptible to the examining physician). (See also Symptoms.)
  • Single-agent drug – A drug that is used as the only treatment.
  • Spleen – An organ located on the left side of the abdomen, near the stomach, that is part of the lymphatic system; it produces white blood cells, filters the blood, stores blood cells, and destroys old blood cells.
  • Staging cancer – A standardized way to classify a tumor based on its size, whether it has spread, and where it has spread; staging measures the extent of the disease.
  • Stent – Device placed in a body structure (such as the pancreatic duct) to keep it open.
  • Stroma – Supportive tissue surrounding the pancreatic tumor.
  • Subcutaneous – Under the skin.
  • Supportive care – In patients with cancer, use of medications and integrative therapies to prevent or counteract unwanted side effects of cancer or its treatment to increase quality of life.
  • Symptoms – Subjective sensations of the patient. (See also Signs.)
  • Systemic treatment – In cancer, a treatment in which a drug enters and travels throughout the body to reach tumor cells.



  • Targeted therapy – Treatment designed to kill only cancer cells and not healthy cells.
  • TNM system – A system used to evaluate cancer; T stands for tumor, N for node, and M for metastasis.
  • Total pancreatectomy – Procedure now seldom used to remove the entire pancreas and spleen in patients with pancreatic cancer.
  • Transdermal – Through the skin.
  • Tumor markers – Substances, usually proteins, produced by a cancer or by the body’s response to the presence of cancer that can be detected in the blood.


  • Ultrasound – Also called a sonogram, ultrasonogram, or ultrasound scan; imaging method that bounces sounds waves off internal organs to produce echoes; a computer creates patterns from these echoes that can determine whether tissue is normal or abnormal.
  • Unconventional therapy – Term used to cover all types of complementary and alternative treatments that fall outside of proven therapies. (See also Alternative Therapy.)



  • Whipple procedure – Surgical procedure, usually for cancer, that removes part of the stomach, the duodenum, the head of the pancreas, part of the bile duct, the gall- bladder, and lymph nodes in the area of the pancreas.
  • Will – Legal document that describes how a person wants his or her money and property divided after death.

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