Pancreatic cysts are sac-like pockets of fluid on or within your pancreas. The pancreas is a large organ located behind the stomach. It produces hormones and enzymes that help digest food.
Most pancreatic cysts aren’t cancerous, and many don’t cause symptoms. In fact, many pancreatic cysts technically aren’t cysts at all. Called pseudocysts, these noncancerous (benign) pockets of fluids are lined with scar or inflammatory tissue, not the type of cells found in true cysts.
But some pancreatic cysts can be cancerous. Your doctor may want to take a sample of the pancreatic cyst fluid to determine if cancer cells are present.
Sometimes, your doctor may not be able to tell whether a cyst may become cancerous. Your doctor may recommend monitoring the cyst over time for changes in size or shape that may suggest the need to remove it surgically. Some cysts have a low potential for becoming cancerous, and your doctor may recommend watching them carefully.
The cause of pancreatic cysts is often unknown. Cancerous cysts can be caused by genetic mutations. Some cysts are associated with rare illnesses including von Hippel-Lindau disease, a genetic disorder that can affect the pancreas and other organs.
Pseudocysts often follow a bout of pancreatitis, a painful condition in which digestive enzymes become prematurely active and irritate the pancreas. Pseudocysts can also result from injury to the abdomen, such as from a car accident.
You may not experience any symptoms from pancreatic cysts, including pseudocysts. Pancreatic cysts are often found when imaging tests of the stomach area (abdomen) are done for another reason.
When signs or symptoms of pancreatic cysts do occur, they typically include:
- Persistent abdominal pain, which may radiate to your back
- A mass you can feel in your upper abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting
When to see a doctor
Cysts can become infected, though this is rare. See a doctor if you are feverish and have persistent abdominal pain.
A ruptured pseudocyst is a medical emergency. Fluid released by the pseudocyst can damage nearby blood vessels and cause massive bleeding. A ruptured pseudocyst can also cause infection of the abdominal cavity (peritonitis). Seek emergency medical treatment if you have signs or symptoms of internal bleeding and shock, including:
- Severe abdominal pain
- Decreased consciousness
- Weak and rapid heartbeat
- Vomiting of blood