Pancreatic cancer may go undetected until it's advanced. By the time symptoms occur, diagnosing pancreatic cancer is usually relatively straightforward. Diagnosing pancreatic cancer usually happens when someone comes to the doctor after experiencing weeks or months of symptoms. Pancreatic cancer symptoms frequently include abdominal pain, weight loss, itching, or jaundice (yellow skin).
Tests for Pancreatic Cancer
If a person has signs and symptoms that might be caused by pancreatic cancer, certain exams and tests will be done to find the cause. If cancer is found, more tests will be done to help determine the extent (stage) of the cancer.
Medical history and physical exam
Your doctor will ask about your medical history to learn more about your symptoms. The doctor might also ask about possible risk factors, including your family history.
Your doctor will also examine you to look for signs of pancreatic cancer or other health problems. The exam will probably focus mostly on your belly. Pancreatic cancers can sometimes cause the liver or gallbladder to swell, which the doctor might be able to feel during the exam. Your skin and the whites of your eyes will also be checked for jaundice (yellowing).
Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, sound waves, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests might be done for a number of reasons both before and after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, including:
- To look for suspicious areas that might be cancer
- To learn if and how far cancer has spread
- To help determine if treatment is working
- To look for signs of cancer coming back after treatment
Several types of blood tests can be used to help diagnose pancreatic cancer or to help determine treatment options if it is found.
A person’s medical history, physical exam, and imaging test results may strongly suggest pancreatic cancer, but usually the only way to be sure is to remove a small sample of tumor and look at it under the microscope. This procedure is called a biopsy. Biopsies can be done in different ways.
Early Detection of Pancreatic Cancer
Treating pancreatic cancer is challenging when it's discovered at an advanced stage, as is usually the case. Researchers are seeking methods of early detection, but so far none has proved useful. These methods include:
- Blood tests. Certain substances, such as carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and CA 19-9, are elevated in people with pancreatic cancer. However, blood tests don't allow for early detection of pancreatic cancer, because these levels may not rise until pancreatic cancer is advanced, if at all.
- Endoscopic ultrasound. Some families have multiple members affected by pancreatic cancer. The American Cancer Society says that up to 10% of pancreatic cancers may be caused by inherited DNA changes. Studies are ongoing to see if aggressive screening with endoscopic ultrasound works for early detection of pancreatic cancer in healthy family members. Early results are promising. However, endoscopy is an invasive procedure, so its use is only justified in people already at high risk for pancreatic cancer.