Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Passion For The Pancreas

Did you know that, in ancient Greek, “pancreas” means
“all meat”? I bet you didn’t! I must admit, however, that
I was reluctant to share this fact with you, for fear that it
would lead you to believe that the pancreas is some sort
of simple, unsubtle organ, like the lungs or the bladder.
Nothing could be further from the truth! The pancreas
is no brute body part, capable only of doing one thing over
and over again–quite the contrary! The pancreas, as I’m
sure you’ll see, has an elegance and a grace all it’s own.

As both an exocrine and an endocrine organ, no one can
argue that the pancreas doesn’t keep busy. For one, its
“acini” (or clusters of exocrine cells) secrete a variety of
digestive enzymes, including, but not limited to, tryp-
sinogen, chymotrypsinogen and amylase. Your duo-
denum is quite for of these juices, as they play an inte-
gral role in turning the hotdogs, cheesy-doodles and
chicken wings you can’t keep yourself from eating into
a somewhat-softened mass which can more easily travel
down your small intestine! “You’re welcome,” says intre-
pid Mr. Pancreas, mistakenly assuming that you appreciate
all it does for you...

But it’s generosity doesn’t stop with the emission of zymo-
gens into the intralobular ducts–oh no! To believe this
would be as foolish as believing that Einstein was just a
pretty good violin player! Any discussion of the pancreas
that fails to mention the Islets of Langerhans is a callow
discussion indeed. These agglomerations of cells are a
key element of any functioning endocrine system, seeing
as they release insulin, glucogon and somatostatin. A
comprehensive overview of the importance of these
hormones is beyond the scope of this blog, but–I assure
you–they’re very necessary to a balanced life.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that an organ
this incredibly powerful must be at least six feet long and
weigh somewhere upwards of fifty pounds. Well, think again:
the pancreas–located between the aforementioned duodenum
(specifically, its C-loop) and the hilium of the spleen–is a mere
15-20 centimeters long and only weighs 75-100 grams! Your
lungs, which I need not mention that you have two of, are a
lot bigger and all they do is push air around all day. This is
why, over the course of any rigorous study of human anatomy,
one must come to the conclusion that the pancreas is a much
better organ than the lungs. I love the pancreas. I hate the
lungs. This is the learned position to take.

So why, then, isn’t it acceptable to speak fondly about the
beauty and winsomeness of a loved-one’s pancreas? Why
can’t I say, for instance, that my pancreas overflows with
happiness? Why can’t I wax poetic about the shape and
nature of a special woman’s pancreas? I’m sure you’ll
agree that to do any of these would be absurd. The
reason for this is put quite gamely in Schwartz’s essential

The pancreas is perhaps the most unforgiving organ in
the human body, leading most surgeons to avoid
palpating it unless necessary. Situated deep in
the cen-
ter of the abdomen, the pancreas is surround
ed by
numerous important structures and major blood

vessels. Therefore seemingly minor trauma to the

pancreas can result in the release of pancreatic enzymes

and cause life-threatening pancreatitis...

There you have it. Even surgeons are afraid to touch it, yet
even they need it to regulate their blood-glucose levels. If
the pancreas was an alcoholic beverage, it would be a straw-
berry-flavored boilermaker. If it was an article of clothing, it
would be a cute tank-top studded with poison-tipped spikes.
If it was a pop singer, it would be a drunken Ashlee Simpson
hurling curse words at hapless McDonald’s employees

The pancreas: fearsome diva of your retroperitoneal region.
Honor it, as you must, but also fear it.