Although cancer ranks fourth in the cause of cancer mortality rates in the U.S, there has not been a standard screening test to detect it early and save lives. The pancreas is located deep inside the body and it’s not easy to see or feel early tumors during physical examinations. It also presents no symptoms until the cancer has advanced and spread to other organs in the body. Individuals at high risk of the disease include those with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer, those with Lynch Syndrome and those with mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Here are some of the tests carried out on patients with pancreatic cancer:
- Blood tests – At times, the levels of some proteins in the blood rise when an individual has pancreatic cancer. Such proteins, known as tumor markers, can be detected using blood tests. The CA 19-9 and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) are tumor markers that are closely associated with pancreatic cancer. The CA-19-9 don’t always go up when one has pancreatic cancer and if they go up, the cancer is found when it’s already advanced. Sometimes, the tumor markers go up even when pancreatic cancer is not present. Blood tests can be ordered for patients showing symptoms but can’t be used to screen for pancreatic cancer. Blood tests are only effective in people who already have pancreatic cancer to tell whether the cancer is progressing or if the treatment is working.
- Genetic testing – These are only done on people with an increased risk. These are individuals with a family history of pancreatic cancer or other cancers, which might be due to a specific genetic syndrome. Some genes can be tested to look for pancreatic cancer early when it can be easily treated. Endoscopic ultrasound has helped doctors to detect pancreatic cancer in such situations.
- CT scan – A CT scan or any other type of scan that focuses on the pancreas may be recommended although these tests have not been proven to be effective at picking up early-stage cancers or pre-cancers.
There’s no standard screening program or test for detecting pancreatic cancer early. Only people at high risk for the disease can be considered for screening. Researchers are working to discover means of detecting the disease earlier, especially in people with no family history of the disease.