BACKGROUND: The natural history of pancreatic cystic neoplasms remains poorly understood despite growing evidence on the subject. Pancreatic cysts display a wide spectrum of pathological phenotypes, each associated with a different prognostic implication. Many pancreatic cysts are of undetermined malignant potential at presentation and remain so until surgically resected. While the survival rates of patients with malignant cysts are known to be poor, survival rates in patients with undetermined pancreatic cysts are unknown.OBJECTIVE: To identify the factors associated with survival in a group of patients diagnosed with a pancreatic cyst(s).METHODS: The present study was a retrospective multicentre review of pancreatic cystic neoplasms. All patients with a diagnosis of a neoplastic pancreatic cyst from 1994 to 2003 were identified at five different institutions in Edmonton, Alberta. The data collected included patient age, sex, imaging modality, cyst location, cyst size, number of cysts, comorbid illnesses, history of upper abdominal surgery, previous cancer, previous or concurrent metastases, symptoms (pain, upper gastrointestinal bleeding, signs of biliary obstruction, nausea/vomiting), remarkable radiological features, elevated amylase or lipase, type of pancreatic surgery, final pathology (benign or malignant) and overall survival. Survival models were used to assess whether any covariates were predictors of the survival time. Patient data were plotted using the Kaplan-Meier method. The resulting plot was used to calculate survival in the cohort.RESULTS: In total, 64 patients were identified as having neoplastic pancreatic cysts from 1994 to 2003 at the five institutions. The median overall patient survival time was 86 months. The median age at diagnosis for the patient population was 73 years, with 40 patients being women. Univariate analysis revealed that the risk of death was associated with patient age, sex and history of major comorbid illness. Multivariate models identified increased patient age and male sex as the factors that correlated most strongly with decreased overall survival.CONCLUSION: Overall survival in patients with neoplastic pancreatic cysts is determined by patient factors (ie, age and sex) rather than factors descriptive of the cyst such as size and morphology. No conclusions could be made regarding the relationship between cyst pathology and patient survival.