Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect and diagnose for many reasons. When pancreatic cancer is in its early stages, the patient does not usually feel signs or symptoms. When signs are present, they can be associated with many other illnesses. The pancreas is hidden behind other organs, such as the stomach, liver, small intestine, spleen and gallbladder, making it difficult to visualize on radiology tests, and difficult to feel during a physical exam.

Possible signs and symptoms include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • Severe itching
  • Dark urine and/or light-colored stool
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen, sometimes penetrating to the back
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting

Diagnostic Testing

In the process of determining if the signs and symptoms listed above are associated with pancreatic disease, the doctor will order a series of blood tests and radiology tests after performing a thorough physical exam. There is no one test, either blood test or x-ray, that can be ordered to see if pancreatic cancer is present. A series of tests are done, and they may include: a complete metabolic panel, liver panel, serum amylase and serum lipase, and tumor markers (CEA and/or CA19-9) The radiology tests that may be ordered include CT (computed tomography) scan, PET-CT (positron emission tomography) scan, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), EUS (endoscopic ultrasound), and ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography), among others. A diagnostic laparoscopy may also be suggested, which is a surgical procedure involving inserting a scope through a tiny incision in the abdomen and viewing the areas of concern. The surgeon might take a small amount of tissue to send to the laboratory to test for cancer.

After the diagnostic tests have been reviewed, the doctors will provide their recommendations on how best to care for the disease, and provide options for treatment. Pancreatic cancer can be controlled only if it is found before it has spread, when it can be removed with surgery. If the cancer has spread, there are methods available to control the symptoms and complications of this disease.

If You Are Experiencing These Symptoms

If you are experiencing one of more of these symptoms, you should seek out the advice of your primary care physician or internist. Patients are welcome to schedule a consultation at The Elkins Pancreas Center at any time at 1-877-PANCCTR (1-877-726-2287).

Your physician may order certain diagnostic tests to evaluate your pancreas and other proximal organs. See Staging of Pancreatic Cancer.