A pancreatic tail mass is a growth or lump in the tail of the pancreas. It may be benign or cancerous. Cancerous pancreatic tail tumors are usually asymptomatic in the earliest stages, possibly leading to later diagnoses.

The pancreas is a thin, pear-shaped gland in the abdomen between the stomach and spine.

Approximately 10–15% of pancreatic tumors develop in the tail rather than the head or body of the gland.

Pancreatic tail masses often go unnoticed until they become large enough to cause symptoms, such as abdominal pain and weight loss. This may contribute to a poorer outlook than tumors in the gland’s head.

This article explains the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options, and outlook for people with pancreatic tail masses.

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Pancreatic tumor symptoms vary depending on the size and location of the mass. For instance, tumors in the head of the pancreas can cause jaundice, but this is less likely with tumors in the pancreas tail or body.

According to a 2019 case report, pancreatic tail tumors typically have vague symptoms, which doctors may attribute to other causes. People with later stage pancreatic tail masses may experience:

However, the case report highlights that pancreatic tail tumors are often asymptomatic in early stages, which may contribute to a late diagnosis.

Pancreatic tail cancer may be hard to diagnose in the early stages because it has no symptoms. Symptoms that develop in later stages may be vague and lead to a misdiagnosis.

However, if a doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, there are several tests they may use to diagnose it. According to the American Cancer Society, tests for pancreatic cancer may include:

  • Physical examination: During a physical exam, doctors assess a person’s overall health and may feel the abdomen for abnormalities or masses.
  • Medical history: Doctors may ask about the person’s medical and family history to identify potential risk factors for pancreatic cancer.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests in a pancreatic cancer diagnosis may assess a person’s liver function and general health. Doctors may also use blood tests to locate tumor markers.
  • Imaging tests: Imaging tests can help doctors visualize the pancreas and determine the size and location of any masses. These tests may include:

If the imaging and laboratory tests indicate a potential pancreatic tail mass, doctors may recommend further diagnostic procedures, such as a biopsy. A biopsy involves removing a small tissue sample from the pancreatic tail and examining it under a microscope.

Doctors may complete biopsies using an endoscopic ultrasound. It allows them to look inside the body at specific organs and tissues.

Treatment options for pancreatic tail masses depend on the size and stage of the tumor as well as the overall health and preferences of the person.

Potential treatment options for pancreatic tumors include:

  • Chemotherapy: Doctors may recommend chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, prevent it from spreading, or treat any remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy may still be a primary treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer if surgery is not a viable option.
  • Radiation therapy: Some people may require a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to target and destroy cancer cells in the pancreatic tail. Doctors may also suggest radiation therapy to ease certain symptoms of advanced pancreatic cancer.
  • Targeted therapy: Doctors may recommend targeted therapy alongside chemotherapy or if other treatment options do not work. Targeted therapy drugs for pancreatic cancer include erlotinib (Tarceva) and olaparib (Lynparza).
  • Distal pancreatectomy: If the person is eligible for surgery, doctors may recommend removing the pancreas’s tail and any surrounding lymph nodes. Surgeons may also remove the spleen during the procedure.
  • Total pancreatectomy: In some cases, doctors may recommend a total pancreatectomy. It involves removing the entire pancreas, the gallbladder, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, and the spleen.

In addition to removing the pancreatic tail mass, doctors may also recommend supportive care and pain management to improve the person’s quality of life.

The outlook for people with pancreatic tail masses may depend on the type of tumor a person has. For instance, a 2020 article suggests that the less common pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors often have a better outlook than exocrine tumors.

Additionally, pancreatic tail tumors typically have a worse outlook than tumors in the head of the pancreas.

A 2019 systematic review suggests this difference may be due to the typically late diagnosis of pancreatic tail cancer, which often occurs after the cancer has spread.

As of 2023, the 5-year relative survival rate for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined is 12%. However, this is a slight increase from previous years. Organizations such as the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network aim to drive the survival rate higher.

The American Cancer Society highlights the following risk factors for pancreatic cancer:

The American Cancer Society suggests that the risk of pancreatic cancer also increases with age.

In advanced stages, pancreatic tail tumors may cause back or abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss. If people experience these symptoms, they should contact a healthcare professional to identify the cause.

Although pancreatic tail cancer is usually asymptomatic in its early stages, people experiencing the following symptoms should seek medical attention:

People who receive a cancer diagnosis may experience mental health conditions, such as depression. People can speak with family members and healthcare professionals to get support.

The following organizations also offer support to people with pancreatic cancer and their caregivers:

Below are answers to some common questions about pancreatic tail masses.

Is a pancreatic tail mass always cancerous?

Pancreatic tail masses can be cancerous or noncancerous. Some benign (noncancerous) growths may also become cancerous over time.

Some benign and precancerous pancreatic tumors include:

  • serous cystic neoplasms
  • solid pseudopapillary neoplasms
  • mucinous cystic neoplasms
  • intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms

Is a pancreatic tail tumor worse than a pancreas head tumor?

Pancreatic head tumors are more common than pancreatic tail tumors. People are also more likely to receive a diagnosis at an earlier stage, which may lead to better survival rates.

However, a 2022 study suggests pancreatic tail cancer can have a better outlook than pancreatic head cancer if the tumor is localized, or has not spread.

How serious is a pancreatic tail tumor?

The outlook for pancreatic tail tumors may depend on the size and stage of the tumor, the person’s overall health, and whether the tumor has spread to other parts of the body.

2023 cancer figures from the American Cancer Society suggest that the combined stages of pancreatic cancer have a 5-year relative survival rate of 12%. However, this is a slight improvement compared to figures from the previous year.

Pancreatic tail masses are growths or tumors that occur in the tail of the pancreas. They can be cancerous or noncancerous.

Early stage pancreatic tail tumors usually do not cause symptoms, which may lead to a later diagnosis. However, people with advanced pancreatic tail cancer may experience back or stomach pain and sudden weight loss.

With prompt medical attention, proper diagnosis, and timely treatment, a person with a pancreatic tail mass may have a better outlook and quality of life.