What is a Pancreatic Endocrine Tumor?

H. Colledge

A pancreatic endocrine tumor is a growth which develops from hormone-producing cells in the digestive organ known as the pancreas. Also known as neuroendocrine tumors, these growths are sometimes cancerous. A pancreatic endocrine tumor may be described as functional, if it produces pancreatic hormones, or non-functional, if it does not. Non-functional tumors are very often found to be cancerous, while functional tumors are sometimes cancerous and produce symptoms related to the hormones they secrete. A pancreatic endocrine tumor usually requires surgical removal, unless it has already spread throughout the body.

A pancreatic endocrine tumor develops from hormone-producing cells in the pancreas.
A pancreatic endocrine tumor develops from hormone-producing cells in the pancreas.

Neuroendocrine tumors are growths which develop from hormone-producing endocrine glands. When these tumors occur in the digestive system, they are known as gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine tumors. A pancreatic endocrine tumor develops specifically from cells inside the gland known as the pancreas.

The pancreas is a regulatory gland in the endocrine system.
The pancreas is a regulatory gland in the endocrine system.

Pancreatic endocrine tumor symptoms vary according to whether the tumor is functional or non-functional. Non-functional tumors are more common and, as they do not secrete hormones, they are likely to cause symptoms related to the tumor mass, creating a blockage or pressing on surrounding structures. Jaundice, where the skin and eyes turn yellow, may be the first noticeable sign. If cancerous spread has occurred, symptoms may be caused by the growth of tumor cells in other parts of the body.

A functional pancreatic endocrine tumor causes symptoms due to excessive production of pancreatic hormones. Tumors which produce the hormone insulin are called insulinomas. Insulin regulates blood sugar levels, and excess production can lead to symptoms of hypoglycemia, where blood sugar is too low. Symptoms such as shakiness, headaches and weakness may occur. Insulinomas are not usually cancerous and tend to grow slowly.

Another type of pancreatic endocrine tumor, known as a glucagonoma, produces the hormone glucagon, which also regulates blood sugar. In this case, a high blood sugar level results, and symptoms such as anemia and blood clots may develop. Tumors known as gastrinomas secrete excess gastrin, the hormone which stimulates stomach acid production, leading to ulcer formation and bleeding.

Other tumors known as VIPomas produce the hormone vasoactive intestinal peptide, or VIP. This causes diarrhea, which is watery, together with nausea and weight loss. The very rare somatostatinoma is a cancerous tumor which gives rise to diabetes, fatty stools and anemia.

Diagnosis and treatment of a pancreatic endocrine tumor may be difficult and may require input from both oncology, or cancer, and endocrinology, or hormone, specialists. If the tumor has not metastasized, or spread, surgical removal is usually the preferred treatment and may provide a cure. Where spread has occurred, treatments are focused on alleviating symptoms.

The pancreas gland plays a vital role in digestion and in insulin and glucagon production.
The pancreas gland plays a vital role in digestion and in insulin and glucagon production.

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