Pancreatic Cancer Detection and Diagnosis

Unlike other cancers, there are no routine screening tests for the early detection of pancreatic cancer.

Familial Pancreatic Cancer Screening Program

This program identifies individuals who may have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer based on their family history and provides the opportunity to be screened early on for pancreatic cancer when it is most treatable.

If you have questions about your risk factors call 888-333-1306 or 414-385-2476 to speak with a program coordinator.

Pancreatic Cancer Screening Process

Pancreatic cancer screening process

Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis

Cancer forms when cells divide and grow abnormally. Cancer refers to malignant tumors that can spread to nearby tissues and other parts of your body and cause death. Benign tumors are not cancerous and do not invade other tissues or spread.

Tests and procedures that examine the pancreas and surrounding area are used to detect and diagnose pancreatic cancer. Some of these tests also help our doctors determine if the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to other parts of the body. This is called "staging" of the cancer. Knowing the stage of cancer helps our doctors plan the treatment. The tests and procedures that may be ordered by your doctor for diagnosis and staging include:

Bloodwork: often includes liver function tests and other tests that identify abnormalities in pancreatic function. A test called CA19-9 (tumor marker) may be drawn. CA19-9 is a substance that some pancreatic tumor cells release into the bloodstream. It does not provide a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer by itself, but may be used in conjunction with other tests. It may also be drawn during and after treatment to monitor your response to treatment.

Computed Tomography (CT): a series of detailed pictures of areas inside your body taken from different angles. The pictures are created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine. This helps doctors determine the extent of the disease.

Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS): a procedure in which an endoscope is inserted through your mouth and into your stomach. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument that has a light and a lens for viewing. A probe at the end of the endoscope is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal organs to make a picture. This allows the physician to view the pancreas and surrounding organs and tissues. A sample of tissue can also be removed during this procedure and examined.

Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): a procedure that uses an endoscope to examine and X-ray the pancreatic and biliary ducts. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. The endoscope is passed through your mouth and down into the first part of your small intestine (duodenum). A dye is injected through the catheter into the ducts, and an X-ray is taken. Pancreatic cells can be removed during this procedure and examined. If a duct is found to be blocked, a bile duct stent can be placed during this procedure to relieve your symptoms including jaundice.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): MRI uses a strong magnetic field and radiofrequency waves to provide a clear picture of your body's soft tissues. MRI can detect abnormal areas that are sometimes hard to see on standard X-rays or CT scans.

Positron Emission Tomography/Computed Tomography (PET/CT): the combination of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) with Computed Tomography (CT) represents the frontier of diagnostic cancer imaging. The technology provides our physicians with two sets of information from a single scan: the anatomical data from a CT scan together with the metabolic information provided by PET. A PET scan uses glucose (sugar) that contains a radioactive atom. The cancer cells will absorb the glucose and can be detected by the scanner. This technology is helpful in localizing smaller cancers and in defining areas to which primary cancers have spread (metastasized). We can also use PET/CT to evaluate your response after treatment to ensure that the treatment is effective.

Biopsy: used to confirm suspected pancreatic cancer. A tissue sample may be obtained by inserting a needle in your pancreas to remove cells. This procedure is called fine-needle aspiration (FNA). The tissue is then examined under the microscope. A sample of tissue may also be obtained during a EUS or ERCP as mentioned above. Sometimes a surgical procedure may be performed to obtain the biopsy.