Can pancreatic cancer be found early?
Pancreatic cancer is hard to find early. The pancreas is deep inside the body, so early tumors can’t be seen or felt by health care providers during routine physical exams. Patients usually have no symptoms until the cancer has already spread to other organs.
Screening tests or exams are used to look for a disease in people who have no symptoms (and who have not had that disease before). At this time, no major professional groups recommend routine screening for pancreatic cancer in people who are at average risk. This is because no screening test has been shown to lower the risk of dying from this cancer.
Sometimes when a person has pancreatic cancer, the levels of certain proteins in the blood go up. These proteins, called tumor markers, can be detected with blood tests. The tumor markers CA 19-9 and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) are the ones most closely tied to pancreatic cancer. But these proteins don’t always go up when a person has pancreatic cancer, and even if they do, the cancer is often already advanced by the time this happens. Sometimes levels of these tumor markers can go up even when a person doesn’t have pancreatic cancer. For these reasons, blood tests aren’t used to screen for pancreatic cancer, although a doctor might still order these tests if a person has symptoms that might suggest pancreatic cancer. These tests are more often used in people already diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to help tell if treatment is working or if the cancer is progressing (see “How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?”).
Genetic testing for people who might be at increased risk
Some people might be at increased risk of pancreatic cancer because of a family history of the disease (or a family history of certain other cancers). Knowing whether or not you are at increased risk can help you and your doctor decide if you should have tests to look for pancreatic cancer early, when it might be easier to treat (see below).
Inherited DNA changes are thought to cause as many as 10% of pancreatic cancers. Some of these changes can be tested for. But determining whether someone has an increased risk is not simple. Talking to someone with experience in hereditary cancer syndromes such as a genetic counselor, geneticist, or an oncologist (doctor who treats people with cancer) is often helpful.
The American Cancer Society strongly recommends that anyone considering genetic testing talk with a genetic counselor, nurse, or doctor qualified to interpret and explain the test results before they proceed with testing. It’s important to understand what the tests can − and can’t − tell you, and what any results would mean. Genetic tests look for the gene mutations in your DNA that cause inherited conditions. The tests are used to diagnose these inherited conditions, not pancreatic cancer itself. Your risk may be increased if you have one of these conditions, but it does not mean that you have (or definitely will get) pancreatic cancer. For more information, see our document Genetic Testing: What You Need to Know.
Testing for pancreatic cancer in people at high risk
For people in families at high risk of pancreatic cancer, newer tests for detecting early pancreatic cancer may help. One of these is called endoscopic ultrasound (see the section “How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?”). This test is not used to screen the general public, but it might be used for someone with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer or with a known genetic syndrome that increases their risk. Doctors have been able to find early, treatable pancreatic cancers in some members of high-risk families with this test.
Doctors are also studying other new tests to try to find pancreatic cancer early. Interested families may wish to take part in studies of the possible role of screening in those with a family history of the disease.
Last Medical Review: 06/11/2014
Last Revised: 01/09/2015