Detecting Pancreatic Cancer: What You Need to Know

Pancreatic cancer starts in the pancreas, an organ located behind the lower part of the stomach. It produces hormones that help manage your blood sugar and releases enzymes to assist digestion. According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer contributes to 3% of all cancers in the US and 7% of all cancer deaths. About 1 in 64 people have this cancer in their lifetime.

Is Early Detection Possible? 

It is rare to detect pancreatic cancer early on. Since the pancreas hides behind the stomach, doctors cannot feel or see the tumors during routine physical exams. It’s also common that patients develop no symptoms until the disease has advanced or spread to other organs. Routine screening tests may be performed to help detect some cancer types in asymptomatic patients. As of now, there are no recommended screening tests for pancreatic cancer.  

Diagnostic Tests for Pancreatic Cancer

Doctors recommend the following tests for people with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer (e.g. those who have a family history of the disease or a specific genetic syndrome). 

Genetic Testing

This form of testing checks for the inherited conditions caused by gene mutations. You may be at an increased risk of pancreatic cancer if you have any of those conditions.

Knowing that you are at risk helps you and your healthcare provider decide whether you should undergo screening tests for early detection. However, the American Cancer Society recommends talking to a genetic specialist before opting for such tests as they will help you understand the reasons for each screening and what their results mean.  

Other Tests

  • CT Scan – It provides detailed cross-sectional images of the pancreas to help detect pancreatic cancer. The results will determine the specific surgery needed.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Scan – An MRI uses strong magnets and radio waves to create detailed images of the pancreas. This helps your doctor to look for any abnormalities. 
  • Abdominal Ultrasound – These are performed to detect the root cause of abdominal symptoms.
  • Endoscopic Ultrasound – This is an accurate diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer. It also helps your doctor view the inside of the digestive tract and collect biopsy samples. 
  • Cholangiopancreatography- Checks both the bile and pancreatic ducts to determine whether there are tumors that are blocking, dilating, or narrowing them. This test can be performed in different ways, such as
    • Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)- Uses magnetic resonance imaging for non-invasive visualization of the ducts.
    • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)- Combines endoscopy and fluoroscopy.
    • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC)- A radiological technique used to visualize the anatomy of the ducts.
  • Positron Emission Tomography Scan – It helps determine the spread of cancer beyond the pancreas.
  • Angiography – It checks blood vessels for abnormalities, tumor blocks in a particular area, or whether cancer has grown through the blood vessels’ walls. 
  • Blood Tests – Your doctor may perform blood tests, such as liver function tests, tumor markers, complete blood count, and a chemistry panel to determine how patients might respond to cancer treatment. 
  • Biopsy Tests – Your provider may perform biopsies in different ways, including:
    • Percutaneous Biopsy- Where samples are collected through needle punctures
    • Surgical Biopsy – Where an entire tissue is removed for examination

Though pancreatic cancers are difficult to detect, these tests may help keep potential cancer at bay. If you or a loved one are looking for the best pancreatic cancer treatment in Anchorage, Contact us at 907-276-3676. At Far North Surgery,  Dr. Madhu Prasad and his team are ready to take pancreatic cancer head-on. 


Dr. Madhu Prasad, M.D., FACS

Dr. Madhu Prasad has over 30+ years of experience working as a general surgeon and surgical oncologist and providing the highest level of care in Anchorage, Alaska. He believes in providing quality care to patients and their families. Inspired by compassion and humanism, Dr. Prasad and his team work for the well-being of their patients.

Alaska Cancer Treatment Center

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