Pancreatic Cancer Early Detection

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A researcher looks for signs of early pancreatic cancer in a microscope slide.

Can Pancreatic Cancer Be Caught Early?

Pancreatic cancer is hard to diagnose early. There is no standard diagnostic tool or established early detection method for pancreatic cancer in the general population yet. However, there are imaging and blood-based tests that may be able to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages in people who are at an increased risk for the disease.

Early-stage pancreatic cancer is usually found if the location of the cancer causes symptoms early or if testing for unrelated medical conditions shows signs of the disease. But most pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed at stage IV.

Researchers across the world are working to develop early detection methods for pancreatic cancer. Those at high risk may consider research studies like surveillance programs. These programs use regular monitoring to look for the disease with the hope of finding it earlier if it does develop.

Why Is Early Detection Important?

Patients whose disease is diagnosed in its early stages have better outcomes. This is due to access to more treatment options, including surgery.

For eligible patients, surgery is the best option for long-term survival of pancreatic cancer. It can increase a patient’s survival by about ten-fold. But most patients are diagnosed at later stages and cannot have surgery.

In addition, although 15-20% of pancreatic cancer patients may be eligible for surgery, data shows that up to half of those patients are told they are ineligible. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends you see a surgeon who performs a high volume of pancreatic surgeries (more than 15 per year) to determine eligibility.

Ways to find pancreatic cancer in the earliest stages are urgently needed. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, other advocacy organizations and the scientific community are working to find pancreatic cancer earlier through:

  • Awareness of symptoms
  • Efforts to improve imaging
  • Studies focused on biomarkers (biological clues) that could help doctors diagnose, monitor and treat the disease
  • Efforts to improve how people at high risk are found and monitored

Why Is Pancreatic Cancer Hard to Find Early?

  • The pancreas is deep in the abdomen. Doctors usually cannot see or feel the tumor during a physical exam.
  • Pancreatic cancer symptoms are not always obvious and usually develop over time.
  • Tests used to diagnose pancreatic cancer do not always detect small lesions, pre-cancers or early-stage cancers well.
  • Researchers have had a hard time figuring out which people to screen. Broad screening can cause medical, emotional and financial challenges.
  • Doctors use several tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer, but there is no standard, single test.

Who Is at High Risk for Pancreatic Cancer?

Family history is a pancreatic cancer risk factor. If you are a first-degree relative of someone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you may have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Your family member with pancreatic cancer is strongly recommended to undergo genetic testing for inherited mutations.

  • Negative results often mean you do not need to get genetic testing.
  • If the results are positive, unknown or if you have several close family members with cancer, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network recommends you consult with a genetic counselor to determine if you should get genetic testing for inherited cancer risk and if you should discuss options for monitoring.

To find genetic counselors near you, contact PanCAN Patient Services.

The risk increases if more family members are affected with pancreatic cancer or other specific cancers or conditions, including:

  • Familial breast, ovarian or colon cancer
  • Familial melanoma
  • Hereditary pancreatitis: repeating pancreatic inflammation, generally starting by age 20
  • Inherited genetic syndromes associated with pancreatic cancer

The following factors also increase pancreatic cancer risk:

  • Long-standing diabetes
  • Chronic and hereditary pancreatitis
  • Smoking
  • Race (ethnicity): African-American or Ashkenazi Jew
  • Age: over age 60
  • Diets high in red and processed meats
  • Obesity
Know your pancreatic cancer risk. Take the test →

Genetic Testing for Pancreatic Cancer

Man gives saliva sample for genetic testing to determine his pancreatic cancer risk. Genetic testing looks for inherited mutations. If you think you may be at risk for pancreatic cancer, talk to your doctor or genetic counselor. They can give you information on genetic testing and help figure out which tests may be right for you.

For more information about genetic counseling, genetic testing and hereditary pancreatic cancer, contact PanCAN Patient Services.

What Early Detection Methods Exist for Pancreatic Cancer?

Today, pancreatic cancer early detection or screening methods focus on those at high risk. These options include:

  • Surveillance programs
  • Regular imaging scans
  • Blood-based tests

What Kind of Pancreatic Screening Services Are Available?

No universal screening tests for pancreatic cancer in the general population exist yet.

But researchers across the country are studying people who have a high chance of getting pancreatic cancer. Methods to detect cancer in people at increased risk are especially important.

Experts do not know yet when, how or how often high-risk people should be tested. They recommend taking part in studies looking at groups at high risk for pancreatic cancer.

Surveillance studies throughout the country enroll people at high risk. In these programs, doctors check participants for changes in the pancreas.

People at high risk who cannot take part in a surveillance program may get regular imaging scans from a gastroenterologist who specializes in pancreatic cancer. Your doctor can also order a blood test for you that may be able to detect the presence of pancreatic cancer before symptoms arise.

Surveillance Programs

In a surveillance, early detection or screening program, doctors actively check people who are at risk of getting pancreatic cancer. The goal is to find pancreatic cancer and pre-cancerous lesions earlier in those who develop the disease. Without screening programs, people who develop pancreatic cancer may be diagnosed at a later stage.

Surveillance programs usually use imaging tests to monitor patients. They may also test blood or pancreatic fluids.

Current pancreatic cancer surveillance programs study people at high risk due to family history, an inherited genetic mutation, new onset diabetes or chronic pancreatitis.

Benefits of taking part in a surveillance program include:

  • Knowledgeable doctors monitoring you
  • Possibly receiving new and better diagnostic tests
  • Helping advance early detection efforts

Before joining a surveillance program, you should understand the risks and benefits. The healthcare professionals running the program can help you with this.

To find a surveillance program, genetic counselor or gastroenterologist near you, contact PanCAN Patient Services.

Pancreatic Cancer Markers

A biomarker is a substance found in the body that can be measured. The amount of a biomarker may differ between a healthy person and someone with a disease. This means biomarkers may aid in detecting that disease.

Biomarkers may be found in samples of blood, tissue (from a biopsy), urine, saliva or other substances in the body.

There are blood tests commercially available that can detect pancreatic exocrine tumors, the most common pancreatic tumor type. The blood tests may detect DNA released from cancer cells, the immune system’s response to the tumor or other blood-based biomarkers, like CA 19-9.

Some blood tests that measure hormones related to pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs) can help with diagnosis of that tumor type. And commercially available blood tests that detect multiple cancer types may include PNETs, which make up about 6% of pancreatic cancers.

While blood tests may signify the possible presence of the disease, they cannot lead to a definitive pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Additional tests, like imaging and biopsies, are necessary to confirm the diagnosis. PanCAN Patient Services can help you understand blood tests, surveillance programs and other options for monitoring your risk of pancreatic cancer.

What Are the Early Warning Signs of Pancreatic Cancer?

Early pancreatic cancer may cause only vague, unexplained symptoms, such as:

  • Pain, usually in the abdomen or back
  • Weight loss
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin, eyes or both) with or without itching
  • Appetite loss
  • Nausea
  • Changes in stool
  • Pancreatitis (swelling of the pancreas)
  • Recent-onset diabetes
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Depression

Contact PanCAN Patient Services for more information about pancreatic cancer symptoms and diagnosis.

Early Detection Research

Early detection is critical to improve pancreatic cancer outcomes. So, many scientists focus their pancreatic cancer research on early detection.

Promising pancreatic cancer early detection projects are underway, including research funded by Pancreatic Cancer Action Network grants. Also, PanCAN’s Early Detection Initiative is studying the relationship between new-onset diabetes and pancreatic cancer.

A few areas being researched now are:

  • Biomarkers, or measurable clues, in blood, pancreatic fluid or cyst fluid to detect early pancreatic cancer
  • Finding and studying people at high risk
  • Better imaging

Learn more about early detection research.

How You Can Help Early Detection Research

  • Make a gift to support the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s work, including early detection research, that would not be possible without the help of generous supporters
  • If you have been diagnosed or have taken care of someone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, join our Patient Registry to advance research

Family Registries

Genetic or family registries collect information about families with multiple pancreatic cancer diagnoses. This often includes information about a family’s:

  • Environment
  • Lifestyle
  • History of pancreatic cancer
  • Incidence of other cancers

The goal is to find common aspects in families with multiple pancreatic cancer cases that will lead to a better understanding of the disease. Registries are vital to research on hereditary pancreatic cancer causes.

Family registries do not offer early detection or screening for pancreatic cancer.

Contact PanCAN Patient Services for a list of pancreatic cancer family registries.

We’re Here to Help

For more information about pancreatic cancer risk factors and early detection, contact PanCAN Patient Services.

Related Topics

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Information reviewed by PanCAN’s Scientific and Medical Advisory Board, who are experts in the field from such institutions as University of Pennsylvania, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Virginia Mason Medical Center and more.

Information provided by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Inc. (“PanCAN”) is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or other health care services. PanCAN may provide information to you about physicians, products, services, clinical trials or treatments related to pancreatic cancer, but PanCAN does not recommend nor endorse any particular health care resource. In addition, please note any personal information you provide to PanCAN’s staff during telephone and/or email communications may be stored and used to help PanCAN achieve its mission of assisting patients with, and finding cures and treatments for, pancreatic cancer. Stored constituent information may be used to inform PanCAN programs and activities. Information also may be provided in aggregate or limited formats to third parties to guide future pancreatic cancer research and education efforts. PanCAN will not provide personal directly identifying information (such as your name or contact information) to such third parties without your prior written consent unless required or permitted by law to do so. For more information on how we may use your information, you can find our privacy policy on our website at