Pancreatic cancer is often identified at an advanced stage because of symptoms that appear as a result of the cancer. Weight loss, back and/or abdominal pain, and jaundice are common signs of pancreatic cancer, and many times appear in the later stages of the disease.
So how is pancreatic cancer diagnosed at an early stage? While jaundice can appear at any stage of pancreatic cancer, it is often one of the early signs. Jaundice can cause the eyes and skin to turn yellow and some patients may feel itchy. If pancreatic cancer is diagnosed early, surgical resection, also known as a Whipple, may be an option and has been shown to be successful in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.
How Pancreatic Cancer is Diagnosed
There are a variety of tests that are used to diagnose pancreatic cancer. If patients are experiencing common symptoms of pancreatic cancer, they should schedule an appointment with their doctor to ensure they are screened appropriately.
Testing with certain imaging is used to help diagnose pancreatic cancer. Specific imaging includes:
- Computed tomography (CT) scan
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
Additional tests, such as blood tests and biopsies, are also performed to assist with diagnosis and staging of the disease in order to determine treatment. A percutaneous biopsy (through the skin), endoscopic biopsy, or surgical biopsy can be done to aid in diagnosis and staging.
Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer After Diagnosis
Treatment for pancreatic cancer includes surgical resection (if in the early stages), radiation, chemotherapy, ablation or embolization, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, clinical trials, or a combination of treatments depending on the stage of the cancer.
Treating oncologists will monitor patients every 2-3 months with blood work and imaging to determine if the treatment is effective. The CA 19-9 level measures the amount of protein in the blood. CA 19-9 is a type of tumor marker, which are substances made by cancer cells or by normal cells in response to cancer in the body.
It is essential to teach patients about the significance of early detection. The 5-year survival rate for all stages of pancreatic cancer is 9%. Given that pancreatic cancer is often detected in the later stages, routine physicals are important and necessary.