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. People usually have no symptoms until the cancer has become very large or has already spread to other organs.

For certain types of cancer, screening tests or exams are used to look for cancer in people who have no symptoms (and who have not had that cancer before). But for pancreatic cancer, no major professional groups currently recommend routine screening 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.

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). Sometimes this increased risk is due to a specific genetic syndrome.

Genetic testing looks for the gene changes that cause these inherited conditions and increase pancreatic cancer risk. The tests look for these inherited conditions, not pancreatic cancer itself. Your risk may be increased if you have one of these conditions, but it doesn’t mean that you have (or definitely will get) pancreatic cancer. 

Knowing if 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. But determining whether you might be at increased risk is not simple. The American Cancer Society strongly recommends that anyone thinking about genetic testing talk with a genetic counselor, nurse, or doctor (qualified to interpret and explain the test results) before getting tested. It’s important to understand what the tests can − and can’t − tell you, and what any results might mean, before deciding to be tested.

Testing for pancreatic cancer in people at high risk

For people in families at high risk of pancreatic cancer, newer tests for detecting pancreatic cancer early may help. The two most common tests used are an endoscopic ultrasound or MRI. (See Tests for Pancreatic Cancer.) These tests are not used to screen the general public, but 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 these tests.

Doctors are also studying other new tests to try to find pancreatic cancer early. (See What's New in Pancreatic Cancer Research?) Interested families at high risk may wish to take part in studies of these new screening tests.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Canto MI.  Familial risk factors for pancreatic cancer and screening of high-risk patients. UpToDate website. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/familial-risk-factors-for-pancreatic-cancer-and-screening-of-high-risk-patients. Updated Nov 2, 2018. Accessed January 2, 2019.

Winter JM, Brody JR, Abrams RA, Lewis NL, Yeo CJ. Chapter 49: Cancer of the Pancreas. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

Yabar CS and Winter JM. Pancreatic Cancer: A Review. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2016; 45(3):429-45. doi: 10.1016/j.gtc.2016.04.003.

Last Medical Review: February 11, 2019 Last Revised: February 11, 2019

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