Pancreatic cancer is often advanced by the time it’s diagnosed. It’s very common for it to spread to other parts of the body. Many people have advanced pancreatic cancer at the time of diagnosis.

Cancer is a disease characterized by cells that rapidly divide and spread while working around your body’s ability to detect and stop unchecked growth. There are many types of cancer, with each type named after the abnormal cells.

Pancreatic cancer starts in your pancreas with rapidly dividing pancreatic cells. If these cancer cells spread to other parts of your body, such as your liver, it’s still considered pancreatic cancer (not liver cancer), because the cancerous cells started as pancreatic cells and still retain some of those properties.

When cancer spreads to another part of your body, it’s said to have metastasized. Metastatic pancreatic cancer is also called stage 4 cancer.

Let’s review in detail how and where pancreatic cancer spreads to other parts of your body.

Many of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be experienced at any stage. Often, there are few or no symptoms until later stages when the cancer has grown or begun to spread.

Some of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

Pancreatic cancer is often advanced by the time it’s diagnosed. There are rarely symptoms for early pancreatic cancer, and there are no widely accepted screenings available. Pancreatic cancer is considered advanced when it is stage 3 or 4.

Stage 3 pancreatic cancer has either spread to four or more lymph nodes or into a major blood vessel. The primary way for pancreatic cancer to spread throughout your body is for the cells to travel through your lymph fluid or blood. Stage 4 pancreatic cancer has already metastasized to another part of your body.

Metastasis is very common, with 80–90% of people having advanced pancreatic cancer at the time of diagnosis.

Once pancreatic cancer has reached your lymph or blood, it can potentially spread to anywhere in your body that those systems reach.

Most of the time, the first places it spreads to are your liver or tissues within your abdomen. Other places include your lungs, bones, and brain, though it can potentially spread to nearly any part of your body.

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer often starts with a physical evaluation and medical history. Your doctor might also want to test samples of your blood, urine, or stool.

If your doctor still suspects pancreatic cancer, you’ll likely need one or more diagnostic imaging tests. These could include computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), among others.

Imaging tests provide a way to see both your pancreas and the area around it. They can be used to locate tumors in your pancreas and see whether they have spread to nearby structures like lymph nodes, blood vessels, or your common bile duct.

This provides clues as to whether your pancreatic cancer has spread and where it might be found. Imaging tests might also show direct evidence of pancreatic cancer that’s metastasized to other tissues.

According to a review from 2015, pancreatic cancer may take longer to metastasize than previously believed. The review is still relevant though a little dated, and it suggests that pancreatic cancer may linger without symptoms for nearly two decades before it’s able to metastasize elsewhere.

After it’s able to metastasize, however, pancreatic cancer is often very aggressive in spreading. This is true with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common type of pancreatic cancer, and the outlook is generally poor.

Cancer cells in your pancreas will continue to divide and grow, forming a mass called a tumor. As the tumor grows, it will expand into more of your pancreas. Eventually, it will expand beyond your pancreas.

As the tumor grows larger, it might block your common bile duct or enter your liver. This is often when symptoms begin.

The cancer cells may also enter nearby lymph vessels or blood vessels. From there, the cancer cells can travel to distant lymph nodes or to other parts of your body through your blood. Wherever the cancer cells end up, they can attach themselves to tissues and continue to grow.

The most effective treatment for pancreatic cancer is surgery to remove the cancer, called resection. Pancreatic cancer that has spread to other parts of your body cannot be treated this way, and you’ll need to use other treatment methods.

For advanced pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy is the standard treatment.

Depending on the genetic features of your advanced pancreatic cancer, immunotherapies or targeted drug therapies might also be potential treatments.

Radiation therapy might also be used to help relieve symptoms of advanced pancreatic cancer.

The prognosis for pancreatic cancer is generally poor.

In the United States, pancreatic cancer is expected to account for only 3.3% of all new cancer cases in 2023 but will be responsible for 8.3% of cancer deaths.

More than half of pancreatic cancers have metastasized to other parts of the body at the time of diagnosis. For people in this group, the 5-year relative survival rate is 3.2%. This means that only 3.2% of this group is expected to survive for 5 years as compared to healthy peers. This number is only a statistical average and doesn’t take into account your own personal diagnosis.

Pancreatic cancer is well known for having no early screening test available yet as well as rarely having any symptoms in the early stages. This means that for most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it has already spread regionally or to more distant locations.

Advanced pancreatic cancer is treatable, but not usually curable. If you have advanced pancreatic cancer, your doctor can help you decide what treatments will fit your own treatment goals.