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What Are Pancreatic Cysts?

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The pancreas doesn’t always get the attention that other organs of the digestive system do. We mainly hear about conditions of the stomach, intestines, esophagus, liver and kidneys.

But the pancreas, with its long, flattened pear shape and its task of making digestive enzymes and hormones, is a vital part of the digestive equation.

And it does sometimes fall prey to conditions such as pancreatic cancer, acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis. Both of the latter conditions involve pain and inflammation.

One of the more common conditions associated with this organ is pancreatic cysts, which come in many varieties and occasionally develop into cancer.

Doctors are diagnosing pancreatic cysts more frequently these days because of improvements in MRIs and CT scans.

Sometimes the images are taken for reasons not related to the pancreas, and the cysts are discovered incidentally. In other cases, symptoms of nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and a mass in the upper abdomen lead to testing and diagnosis.

In a video segment produced by Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Dr. Anne Marie Lennon explains that cysts can occur anywhere in the pancreas and are typically shaped like a balloon, sometimes with a mucus build-up.

Lennon, director of the Multidisciplinary Pancreatic Cyst Program at Johns Hopkins, said that evaluating the type of cyst and its size is critical to deciding how to treat it and whether surgery is warranted.

Using endoscopic cameras and aspirating a sample of the cyst’s lining and fluid are part of the diagnostic procedure.

Pancreatic cysts often just need to be watched and can go away on their own, but symptoms such as yellow jaundice and pancreatitis can spur discussions of surgery, as can a perceived growth of the cyst.

“One of the things that we need is better tests to tell us, firstly, what type of cyst are we dealing with ... and secondly, what, in those types that are precancerous, which are the ones that are likely to change or develop into cancer,” Lennon said.

Lennon said she was optimistic about procedures at Johns Hopkins and other research centers looking into better ways to analyze pancreatic cysts.

The types of pancreatic cysts include mucinous cyst adenoma, considered precancerous; mucinous duct ectasia, often cancerous; serous cystadenoma, rarely cancerous; and papillary cystic tumor, usually cancerous.

Gender and age are sometimes linked to certain types of cysts.

Pancreatic cysts are not to be confused with pseudocysts, fluid-filled sacs in the pancreas that are rarely precursors to cancer. Pseudocysts can develop after a bout of acute pancreatitis or in someone with chronic pancreatitis. Heavy drinking, gallstones and high triglycerides are risk factors.


Faulkner, Dita. “Pancreatic Cysts - What Are They?” EmpowHER.com. Web. 27 August 2012.

“Pancreatic Pseudocyst.” Medline Plus. Web. 27 August 2012.

“What You Need to Know About Pancreatic Cysts.” Johns Hopkins Medicine videocast. Web. 27 August 2012.

Reviewed August 28, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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