A pancreatic mass is a lump on your pancreas that can be cancerous or noncancerous. Pancreatic cancer makes up about 3% of cancers in the United States but disproportionally makes up 7% of cancer deaths.

Your pancreas is about 6 inches long and shaped like a thin pear. The wide end is called the head. The tapering part in the middle is called the body, and the end is called the tail.

About 15% of all pancreatic cancers develop in the tail. These cancers tend to be more advanced at the time of diagnosis than cancers at the head of the pancreas. As with other pancreatic cancers, surgery is considered the only realistic cure.

Read to learn more about pancreatic masses in the tail of the pancreas, including how they’re diagnosed and treated.

Illustration showing a tumor in the tail of the pancreasShare on Pinterest
Anatomy of the pancreas showing a mass (tumor) in the tail. Illustration by Jason Hoffman

A pancreatic mass is another name for a pancreatic tumor. Tumors can be cancerous or noncancerous.

Roughly 90% of pancreatic cancers are ductal adenocarcinoma. This type of cancer develops in the ducts of your pancreas. These ducts deliver enzymes to your small intestines to help with digestion.

Ductal adenocarcinoma of the pancreas is expected to become the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States by the year 2030.

About two-thirds of ductal adenocarcinomas develop in the head of the pancreas with the remainder developing in the body or tail.

Is a tumor in the tail of the pancreas always cancerous?

Noncancerous pancreatic masses are called benign tumors and don’t invade surrounding tissues. They still require a diagnosis from a doctor to rule out cancer.

Noncancerous tumors may also need to be monitored, as some can become cancerous.

Benign tumors may require removal if they’re causing symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or pain.

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Pancreatic cancer in the tail often isn’t diagnosed until the cancer has spread too far for surgical removal. Early stage pancreatic cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms, and when symptoms are present, they’re often general.

Here’s a look at the most common initial symptoms of pancreatic cancer in the head compared with the tail:

Head of pancreasTail of pancreas
weight lossabdominal pain
jaundiceback pain
nausea and vomitingweight loss
pale stools
abdominal pain
dark urine

Example of early symptoms for pancreatic cancer in the tail

In a 2019 case study, researchers describe a 56-year man who had dull left back pain that came and went for 2 or 3 years.

He had no other symptoms except for one bout of abdominal pain and vomiting that required him to go to the hospital, where stage 4 pancreatic tail cancer was diagnosed.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 62,210 people will develop pancreatic cancer in 2022. Only about 15%, or roughly 9,330 cases, are expected to occur in the pancreatic tail.

Researchers aren’t exactly sure why pancreatic cancer develops, but they have identified some risk factors:

The first step to getting a pancreatic cancer diagnosis usually starts by visiting a doctor. They’ll perform a physical exam and consider your family and medical history.

If they suspect pancreatic cancer, they’ll order other tests or refer you to a specialist called a gastroenterologist.

Blood tests can identify markers that suggest cancer. Imaging tests can help identify tumors. A variety of imaging tests are used to diagnose pancreatic cancer, including:

In most cases, a small tissue sample collected through a procedure called a biopsy is needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Five types of standard treatment are used to treat pancreatic cancer:


Surgical removal remains the only option to cure pancreatic cancer. But by the time of diagnosis, most pancreatic cancers have progressed too far for surgery.

In a 2020 study, researchers found that among 2,483 people, only 18.2% of tumors in the body or tail of the pancreas were considered surgically removable. In contrast, 36.6% of cancers in the head of the pancreas were considered surgically removeable.

Pancreatic cancers that are eligible for surgery are typically removed with a procedure called a distal pancreatectomy with a splenectomy.

A distal pancreatectomy removes the tail and possibly the body of your pancreas while keeping the head. A splenectomy is the removal of your spleen.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy

Surgery is often followed by chemotherapy or radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells that may have been left behind. These treatments are sometimes used before surgery to shrink the tumor.

In a 2022 study, researchers found that people with pancreatic cancer in the tail receive chemotherapy about 15% less often than people with pancreatic head tumors.

They also receive neoadjuvant chemotherapy (chemotherapy given before surgery) about 58% less often than people with pancreatic head tumors.

Treating late stage pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer that has spread to distant parts of your body isn’t considered curable. Treatment aims to improve quality of life and may include:

  • chemotherapy with or without targeted therapy
  • clinical trials of new anticancer drugs with or without chemotherapy
  • supportive treatments to help manage your symptoms

Your outlook if you have pancreatic cancer depends on factors such as:

  • how far your cancer has spread
  • your overall health
  • your age
  • the type of cancer

People with tumors that arise in the pancreatic tail or body tend to have a poorer outlook than people with tumors in the pancreatic head. This is because tumors in the pancreatic tail are often diagnosed at a later stage. They’re also more likely to:

Despite having a poorer outlook overall, people with pancreatic cancer in the tail may have a better outlook than those with other pancreatic cancers when the cancer is considered surgically removable. Surgery to remove cancer from the tail tends to be easier and has a lower risk of adverse outcomes.

In a 2019 study, researchers found that people with stage 1A pancreatic head cancer had a worse outlook than people with stage 1A tumors in the tail and body.

Pancreatic cancer in the tail of your pancreas tends to be diagnosed later than cancer in the head of the pancreas.

The outlook for people with this type of cancer tends to be poorer overall, but research suggests that the outlook may be better when the cancer is caught early enough for surgical removal.

A doctor can help recommend the best treatment for your cancer and give you an idea of what to expect. Factors such as your overall health, age, and the extent of your cancer play a role in determining your outlook.