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What is a pancreatic cyst?
A pancreatic cyst is a small buildup of fluid on or in the pancreas. More often than not, pancreatic cysts are benign, or noncancerous, but it is possible for a cyst to become malignant.
Pancreatic cysts typically don’t cause symptoms, which is why they’re usually found during testing for other issues. They can sometimes be caused by pancreatitis or an acute injury to the midsection, but most often don’t have a known cause.
Types of pancreatic cysts
There are several different types of pancreatic cysts:
A serous cystadenoma is a benign cyst that can arise anywhere in the pancreas. These cysts occur most commonly in women over 60, and they rarely become cancerous.
Mucinous cystic neoplasms
Mucinous cystic neoplasms (MCNs) are typically seen in women over the age of 40. These are precancerous cysts.
Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms
Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms are growths in the pancreatic ductal system. These cysts can be precancerous, and they can develop in the main pancreatic duct, the side branches or both.
How is a pancreatic cyst diagnosed?
The diagnostic process usually includes a thorough review of the patient’s personal and family medical history. In addition, certain tests can be used to help determine the type of pancreatic cyst present and whether it may become cancerous. These tests include:
- CT scan – A CT scan can provide information about the size and characteristics of the cyst.
- MRI – An MRI can reveal important details about the cyst and is typically preferred over a CT scan, if appropriate.
- Endoscopic ultrasound – An endoscopic ultrasound is a minimally invasive procedure done by a gastroenterologist to obtain detailed images of the pancreas. Biopsies of the cyst can also be obtained during this procedure, if appropriate.
Should my pancreatic cyst be removed?
The removal of some benign cysts, such as serous cystadenomas, may be beneficial if they are causing pain or other symptoms. Other types of cysts, like MCNs, almost always call for surgery due to their risk of becoming cancerous. Sometimes a pancreatic cyst that isn’t cancerous or causing symptoms can be left alone and just monitored closely for changes. Your physician or treatment team can recommend the most appropriate course of action.
If surgery is recommended, there are several different procedures that might be performed, depending on the location of the cyst and other factors specific to your diagnosis. Some options for pancreatic cyst removal surgery include:
- Whipple surgery – Used for cysts in the head of the pancreas
- Distal pancreatectomy – Used for cysts in the tail or left portion of the pancreas
- Total pancreatectomy – Used when cysts have affected multiple parts of the pancreas
Pancreatic cyst surveillance program
During one of your initial visits, you will meet with a pancreatic surgeon or gastroenterologist. If it is determined that your pancreatic cyst does not require surgery and it is better to be kept under surveillance, you will be scheduled for regular follow up visits. During these surveillance appointments, which typically take place every six months to a year, you will have imaging done – either a CT scan or MRI – and will see the practitioner.
"Our Pancreas multidisciplinary team is at the forefront of the work-up and management of pancreas cysts using the latest technological advancements and most up to date treatment guidelines."- Jason Klapman, MD, FASGE
Medically reviewed by Jason Klapman, MD, FASGE.
To learn more about pancreatic cyst diagnosis, treatment or surveillance, call Moffitt Cancer Center at 1-888-663-3488, or complete a new patient registration form online to request a visit with or without a referral.