Pancreatic cysts: pathologic classification, differential diagnosis, and clinical implications

Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2009 Mar;133(3):423-38. doi: 10.5858/133.3.423.


Context: Cystic lesions of the pancreas are being recognized with increasing frequency and have become a more common finding in clinical practice because of the widespread use of advanced imaging modalities and the sharp drop in the mortality rate of pancreatic surgery. Consequently, in the past 2 decades, the nature of many cystic tumors in this organ has been better characterized, and significant developments have taken place in the classification and in our understanding of pancreatic cystic lesions.

Objective: To provide an overview of the current concepts in classification, differential diagnosis, and clinical/biologic behavior of pancreatic cystic tumors.

Data sources: The authors' personal experience, based on institutional and consultation materials, combined with an analysis of the literature.

Conclusions: In contrast to solid tumors, most of which are invasive ductal adenocarcinomas with dismal prognosis, cystic lesions of the pancreas are often either benign or low-grade indolent neoplasia. However, those that are mucinous, namely, intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms and mucinous cystic neoplasms, constitute an important category because they have well-established malignant potential, representing an adenoma-carcinoma sequence. Those that are nonmucinous such as serous tumors, congenital cysts, lymphoepithelial cysts, and squamoid cyst of pancreatic ducts have no malignant potential. Only rare nonmucinous cystic tumors that occur as a result of degenerative/necrotic changes in otherwise solid neoplasia, such as cystic ductal adenocarcinomas, cystic pancreatic endocrine neoplasia, and solid-pseudopapillary neoplasm, are also malignant and have variable degrees of aggressiveness.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Pancreatic Cyst / classification
  • Pancreatic Cyst / diagnosis*
  • Pancreatic Cyst / pathology*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Pancreatic Pseudocyst / diagnosis
  • Pancreatic Pseudocyst / pathology