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Pancreatic Cancer Tests, Diagnosis, Prognosis and Stages

Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center doctors use the latest techniques to accurately diagnose pancreatic cancer. An accurate diagnosis is critical to determining the most effective treatments.

Usually, pancreatic cancer symptoms do not appear until more advanced stages, which can make treatment options more difficult. Our caring team of cancer experts is here to help you through your diagnosis and understand all your options and results. 

Are There Screening Tests for Pancreatic Cancer?

No screening tests are currently available for pancreatic cancer. 

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?

Your doctor will begin by asking about your medical history, family history and discuss any symptoms you have been having before conducting: 

  • Physical examination: The doctor will examine your skin, tongue and eyes for jaundice and feel your abdomen for any changes.
  • Blood tests: Blood will be checked for abnormal levels of bilirubin and other substances.
  • Imaging tests: These tests can help doctors determine where the cancer is located and whether it has spread to other parts of the body:
    • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan or PET-CT scan.  
    • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan
    • Ultrasound
    • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) (scope)
    • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC) (x-ray procedure)
  • Biopsy and tissue tests: Removal of a small amount of tissue from the affected area for examination. If the cancer has spread, a biopsy from other areas may be needed as well
    • Fine needle aspiration (FNA)
    • Core or Tru-Cut needle biopsy

What’s the Prognosis of Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is considered incurable. While survival rates have been improving, the one-year relative survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 20 percent and the five-year rate is 7 percent. This is due in larger part to the delay in diagnosis, as more advanced forms of pancreatic cancer are difficult to treat.

Pancreatic Cancer Stages

Stage describes how far cancer has spread and help guide treatment. The stages of pancreatic cancer are:

  • Stage 0: Abnormal cells are found only in the lining of the pancreas. These cells have the potential to become cancer. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ. 
  • Stage 1: Local growth and limited to the pancreas. This stage is divided into 1A and 1B, based on the tumor size.
    • Stage 1A:  Size of the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller
    • Stage 1B: The tumor is larger than 2 centimeters
  • Stage 2: The cancer is large or has spread to the lymph nodes.  Stage 2 is divided into 2A and 2B.
    • Stage 2A: The size of the tumor is larger than 4 centimeters.
    • Stage 2B: The Cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3: The cancer has spread (metastasized) to nearby major blood vessels or to four or more lymph nodes near the pancreas. 
  • Stage 4: The cancer has spread to distant organs beyond the pancreas, such as the liver, peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity), lungs or bones. 

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