It may be small – just 4.7 to 5.9 inches (12-15 cm) long – but the pancreas is vital to the digestive process. This week, Tidbits delves into the functions of this important organ.

A Greek surgeon named Herophilus was the first to formally identify the pancreas around 300 B.C. The organ was first referred to as the pancreas about 400 years late, when another Greek surgeon, Ruphos, came up with the name using the Greek word “pankreas,” which translates “all flesh,” perhaps because of its lack of bone or cartilage.

Where is the pancreas anyway? It’s located just behind the stomach in front of the spine. It’s surrounded by the gall bladder, liver, and spleen. The two main functions of the pancreas are to make digestive juices and to produce hormones. The pancreas aids in digestion by producing a fluid containing enzymes that flows into the small intestine help break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and neutralize stomach acid. The pancreas also secretes two hormones directly into the bloodstream. These hormones, insulin and glucagon, are the ones that control blood sugar. When there’s too much sugar, known as glucose, in the blood, insulin is released. Glucagon is released when the blood doesn’t have enough sugar.

The most common pancreatic ailment is diabetes. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce insulin. The immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, preventing other cells from accessing the blood’s glucose for energy, producing an unhealthy build-up of sugar in the bloodstream. Type 2 diabetes arises when insulin is produced, but usually not enough, and the body doesn’t use it correctly. The cells become resistant to insulin, frequently due to obesity, causing glucose to accumulate in the blood.

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  If the body produces too much insulin, the result is hypoglycemia, which causes low blood sugar levels. Hyperglycemia occurs when the body produces too much glucagon, creating high blood sugar levels.

• Painful inflammation of the pancreas, known as pancreatitis, can be the result of gallstones blocking the bile duct, trauma to the abdomen, certain infections, or excessive use of alcohol.

•  It’s possible to live without a pancreas, but it would require daily insulin shots to control blood sugar and a dose of enzyme pills to aid in the digestive process.

•  Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all new cancer cases, but nearly 8% of all cancer deaths. It’s the tenth most common cancer. It’s a sneaky disease, as it doesn’t cause symptoms until the cancer is advanced. At the time of diagnosis, the cancer in half the patients has already spread outside the pancreas to other organs, which denotes Stage Four cancer. The most common type originates in the cells lining the ducts that carry the digestive enzymes out of the pancreas. The cancer is difficult to discover because the symptoms are nonspecific, such as abdominal pain, back pain, weight loss, tiredness or weakness – all things that are more likely to be caused by something else. Type 2 diabetes, smoking, pancreatitis, obesity, and alcohol abuse can raise the risk, as well as family history and older age, as most people diagnosed are over 65. The five-year pancreatic cancer survival rate is about 12.5%.