There aren’t many good things to associate with the word “cyst.” Whether you are well aware of what a cyst is, or are unfamiliar with the term, it sounds like something that shouldn't be there. Cysts can form in tissues throughout the body, and many times benign cysts can exist for a long time without needing treatment or without you even knowing they are there.

But what if you have a cyst in your pancreas? Is that dangerous? The answer is, “it depends.” Some forms of pancreatic cysts are benign, while others can lead to deadly forms of cancer. To begin sorting this out, it may help to back up and find out more about what the pancreas is and what it does for your body.

What is the Pancreas?

Your pancreas is a small organ tucked up high in your abdomen behind the stomach. The pancreas is one of the few organs in the body that has two distinct functions. Generally speaking, your organs only do one job each, whether that is processing oxygen, pumping blood, or digesting your food. The pancreas, on the other hand, has two different jobs to do, and it does them along two different pathways in the body.

As a part of the digestive system, the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes that help your body break down food. This small organ also has another job, though: releasing hormones into your bloodstream to regulate various functions in the body. As part of the endocrine system, a healthy pancreas will produce insulin and glucagon, hormones that raise or lower your blood sugar.

What are Pancreatic Cysts?

Pancreatic cysts are small fluid collections that form in the tissue of the pancreas. There are many types of pancreatic cysts, from benign cysts to those that can cause cancer. These pools of fluid are either filled with a form of mucus and are surrounded by special cells responsible for secreting the fluid into the cyst, or they can simply be collections of pancreatic juices which have failed to drain from the pancreas. Cysts in your pancreas can also occur as pseudocysts or inflammatory cysts. These pseudocysts are small fluid collections filled with digestive juices that have been created by the pancreas itself.

Pancreatic cysts can go undetected for long periods of time. Despite this, these cysts can have some rather attention-grabbing names when they are finally diagnosed. Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms, or IPMN, are one type of mucinous cystic neoplasm or tumor that will certainly get the attention of your doctor or gastroenterologist, as IPMN can lead to invasive and deadly forms of cancer. Much like polyps in your colon that can begin as benign growths, these tumors are often benign at the outset, but can lead to pancreatic cancer later.

IPMN typically affects middle-aged men, but women have their own types of cysts to worry about. Serous cystadenoma are more common in older women, and can become quite large. These cysts are rarely cancerous, but can become large enough to displace adjacent organs, and can lead to abdominal pain and discomfort.

What are the Causes of Pancreatic Cysts?

Different types of cysts occur in different locations within the pancreas, and the risk factors and causes of these cysts vary. Your age, genetics, whether you have other diseases like diabetes or gallstones, and even your consumption of alcohol can all play a role. Women and men are each prone to different types of cysts.

As we look more deeply at the potential causes of pancreatic cysts, there are risk factors you may be able to prevent or reduce. Severe impacts to the abdomen and alcoholism are both potential stresses on the pancreas that can result in the formation of cysts. Diabetes can also lead to the presence of cysts in the pancreas. Since a healthy diet and adding exercise to your lifestyle can help prevent or reduce the severity of diabetes, these actions can also help you reduce your risk of pancreatic cysts.

You can work to lower the level of alcohol you consume, but there is very little you can do about your genetics. Conditions like von Hippel-Lindau disease can predispose you to cysts forming in your pancreatic tissue. Similarly, if you are predisposed to develop gallstones, this can possibly lead to the formation of cysts.

What are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cysts?

The most common symptoms associated with pancreatic cysts is persistent abdominal pain. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, and the feeling of pressure or a mass in your abdomen. You may also feel full soon after you begin eating. Weight loss is possible as well, particularly if your cysts are interfering with the secretion of digestive juices into your intestine.

Cysts in your pancreas can go undetected for long periods of time as they often do not produce identifiable symptoms until the cysts have become quite advanced. This can change drastically, especially if you have a cyst rupture and begin leaking blood and fluid into your abdominal cavity.

Thankfully, ruptured pancreatic cysts are quite rare, but they represent an immediate cause for concern. If a cyst ruptures, you need to seek medical treatment immediately. A ruptured cyst is a genuine health care emergency, and can lead to peritonitis, which is a generalized infection in your abdominal cavity. This can be accompanied by the symptoms of shock such as a rapid, weak pulse, fainting or lack of consciousness, and vomiting blood.

How are Pancreatic Cysts Diagnosed?

Given the location of the pancreas, and the lack of distinct symptoms from many types of cysts, pancreatic cysts are hard to diagnose. Often they are found in images of the abdomen taken with an MRI machine or CT scan while treating or diagnosing other conditions.

Once your doctor suspects you have a cyst in your pancreas, further imaging may be necessary. To get a better look at your pancreas, endoscopic ultrasound is sometimes used. This procedure involves threading a tiny tube into your mouth and through your digestive tract to get a closer look at your pancreas..

If your doctor suspects your cysts could be cancerous, an endoscopy can be used to sample cyst fluid to see if cancer is present. Blood tests and stool samples can also be used to detect the presence of cancer. Secertin tests involve stimulating the pancreas with hormones to see how well it is functioning.

What is the Treatment for Pancreatic Cysts?

Unlike many other conditions, there is little that can be done about pancreatic cysts without invasive surgery. There are some types of cysts, such as those accessible from the main pancreatic duct that can be drained during an endoscopy. For other types of cysts, abdominal surgery is necessary to either remove the cyst in question or to remove a portion of the pancreas itself.

Aside from surgery, changes in diet and lifestyle can help improve your symptoms or lower your risk of future cysts forming. Eliminating heavy alcohol use and managing the amount of fat in your diet, especially if you have a history of gallstones, can help manage the symptoms of non-cancerous cysts.

Talking to Your Doctor About Pancreatic Cysts

Pancreatic cysts are a condition you should take very seriously. Some common types of cysts in the pancreas can become cancerous, and for this reason even some cysts that are benign are still treated as precancerous since the likelihood they will become cancerous later is so high.

If you are experiencing severe symptoms from your pancreatic cysts such as vomiting blood, fainting and severe pain in the abdomen, you must seek medical treatment immediately. If, like many people, your cysts are discovered as a result of imaging done to investigate another medical condition, your doctor will be able to advise you on what course of action is the safest.

At Cary Gastroenterology Associates, we know a thing or two about pancreatic cysts. Our specialization in gastric disorders puts us in a unique position to help you understand your condition and to navigate your treatment options.

With conditions like pancreatic cysts that carry a high risk of cancer, every moment counts. In these days of reduced mobility and lockdowns as we navigate the COVID-19 crisis, we are still here for you. Our telemedicine portal allows you to connect with our board-certified physicians to begin evaluating your symptoms and start the conversation about treatment, along with our in-office visits. Existing patients can schedule a visit through our patient portal. New patients can set up a telemedicine appointment through our request form or by calling 919-816-4948 (option #3).