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.
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
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
Weak and rapid heartbeat
Vomiting of blood
Treatment depends on the type of cyst you have and whether it is causing symptoms.
A benign pseudocyst, even a large one, can be left alone as long as it isn't bothering you. Serous cystadenoma rarely becomes cancerous, so it also can be left alone unless it causes symptoms or grows.
But all pancreatic cysts should be monitored. Cysts smaller than 10 millimeters (0.39 inches) can be imaged with CT scan after one year, and then less frequently if they remain stable. Cysts larger than 10 millimeters usually require regular endoscopic ultrasound to look for worrisome features.
A pseudocyst that is causing bothersome symptoms or growing larger may be drained. A small flexible tube (endoscope) is passed through your mouth to your stomach and small intestine. The endoscope is equipped with a needle to drain the cyst.
Surgery may be needed to remove an enlarged pseudocyst or a serous cystadenoma that's causing pain or other symptoms. Other types of pancreatic cysts generally require surgical removal because of the risk of cancer.