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Incidental pancreatic lesions

Human digestive systemYour pancreas is an organ that sits behind your stomach and is attached to your digestive system by pancreatic ducts (small tubes). It makes hormones like insulin that help to manage your blood sugar, and enzymes that help your digestive system break down food.

An incidental pancreatic lesion is a type of cyst that sits on or in your pancreas. Cysts are sacs or lumps that contain fluid or other material.

Incidental pancreatic lesions usually don't cause any symptoms and most people don't know they have them. They're usually found on images from scans such as CT scans and MRI scans that are done for other reasons.

Since these types of scans have become more common, more and more incidental pancreatic lesions are being found. Doctors now believe that incidental pancreatic lesions are common in older people.

If any symptoms do occur, they might include stomach pain and nausea or vomiting. Rare symptoms include jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eye) and unintentional weight loss.

Most incidental pancreatic lesions are benign (non-cancerous) but a small number have the potential to become cancerous.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer

Risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer include:

Diagnosing incidental pancreatic lesions

If a scan shows you have incidental pancreatic lesions, your GP will examine you and ask if you have any symptoms. They'll also check the image to try to determine the types of the lesions.

They may arrange an ultrasound scan to get more information about the lesions.

Treating incidental pancreatic lesions

If there's a high risk of cancer, your doctor might consider surgery to remove the lesions from your pancreas. They'll determine the risk of the lesions and have a detailed discussion with you. They'll tell you if they recommend surgery.

All surgery has risks and you and your doctor need to weigh up the risks of the surgery against the risks of leaving the lesions alone. For more information about weighing up the risks of treatment and no treatment, see Choosing your medical care wisely.

For most people, the best course of action is active monitoring. This means you'll have regular scans to check if there are any changes. How often the scans will happen depends on factors including: the size of the lesions, how far they extend within the pancreas's tubes and whether you have a family history of pancreatic cancer. Some people will have scans every 18 months.

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created December 2020.

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