Pancreatic cysts are fluid-filled growths that develop in the pancreas. This small glandular organ is located in the abdomen between the stomach and the intestines. In addition to making digestive enzymes, the endocrine (islet) cells in the pancreas produce hormones, such as insulin, that control blood sugar levels in your body.
Sometimes pancreatic cysts grow as a result of pancreatitis, an inflammation in the pancreas. But most develop for no apparent reason and are discovered by chance during a CT or MRI scan done for another purpose. In fact, advances in the quality of these and other imaging technologies have dramatically increased the number of pancreatic cysts that are now found.
Most pancreatic cysts are benign (noncancerous) and unlikely to harm you or cause symptoms. But some are precancerous and have the potential to develop into pancreatic cancer. So it’s important to find out what type of cyst you have.
Types of Pancreatic Cysts
There are nearly 20 types of pancreatic cysts. Common ones include:
Pseudocysts are mostly made of fluid. These can start in or next to the pancreas and are a common complication of acute pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. They’re unlikely to develop if you’ve never had pancreatitis or pancreas injury.
Serous cystadenomas have thick, fibrous walls and contain clear fluid. Almost all SCAs are benign, but they may cause pain, jaundice, or make you uncomfortable in other ways as they grow.
Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms start in the ducts that connect the pancreas to the intestine. They’re the most common type of precancerous cyst. They produce large amounts of proteins that form mucus (mucin) in the cyst lining and fluid. It’s difficult to predict if and when an IPMN will become cancerous, although research indicates that those that involve the main pancreatic duct are at higher risk for this.
These cysts are precancerous growths that can start in the body and tail of the pancreas. They almost always develop in women rather than men. Large ones that contain tiny walls that divide the cyst into compartments, called septations, may be more likely to become cancerous.
Monitoring Pancreatic Cysts
Each year, Memorial Sloan Kettering’s pancreatic cyst specialists evaluate more than 300 people for this condition. Over time, we’ve found that many of those diagnosed have cysts that are best left alone and simply monitored with care, rather than treated in any way. Currently we monitor more than 2,000 people with pancreatic cysts through our Pancreatic Cyst Surveillance Program.
However, if our doctors determine that you would benefit from treatment such as surgery to remove the cyst, we’ll put together a team that includes some of the nation’s most experienced pancreatic surgeons, gastroenterologists, and radiologists to take care of you.