Pancreatic cancer early detection

Editor’s note: We’re sharing answers to FAQs about pancreatic cancer early detection in honor of the announcement of PanCAN’s Early Detection Initiative.

There is currently no standard diagnostic tool or established early detection method for pancreatic cancer. Diagnosing pancreatic cancer in time for surgery can increase a patient’s survival by about 10-fold, but most pancreatic cancer is diagnosed too late for surgery. Therefore, ways to detect pancreatic cancer in the earliest stages are urgently needed. This is why the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) has launched the Early Detection Initiative.

Here are a few things to know about early detection for pancreatic cancer.

Why is pancreatic cancer so difficult to detect early?

The pancreas is located deep in the abdomen, so it is difficult for a doctor to see or feel the tumor during a physical exam. Additionally, pancreatic cancer symptoms are not always obvious and usually develop gradually.

Another big challenge to early detection is determining whom to screen while avoiding medical, emotional and financial problems created by widespread screening.

What classifies someone as being at high risk for developing pancreatic cancer?

If you are a first-degree relative of someone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you may have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Your family member with pancreatic cancer is strongly recommended to get genetic testing for inherited mutations. Negative results often mean you do not need to get genetic testing. If the results are positive, unknown or if you have several close family members with cancer, PanCAN recommends you consult with a genetic counselor to see if you should get genetic testing for inherited cancer risk and discuss options for monitoring.

Other risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer include pancreatitis, other personal or family cancer history, race (ethnicity), smoking, diabetes, obesity, age and others.

Research also suggests that a sudden onset of type 2 diabetes may be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer, especially in those who are over the age of 50, have a low body mass index (BMI), are losing weight or do not have a family history of diabetes. PanCAN’s Early Detection Initiative is studying this population with the goal of finding pancreatic cancer earlier.

What research is being done to find an early detection method for the disease?

PanCAN – through internal initiatives and its Research Grants Program – and others have many promising pancreatic cancer early detection projects underway. Studies like PanCAN’s Early Detection Initiative are looking at people with new-onset diabetes to identify potential biomarkers or imaging techniques, as a small subset of this population has pancreatic cancer.

In this population and other groups, researchers are also looking for biomarkers, or measurable clues, in blood or fluid in the pancreas or cysts to detect early pancreatic cancer.

Are there any early detection clinical trials that are enrolling patients?

As of April 2021, there are about 20 surveillance studies throughout the country that enroll high-risk individuals. In these programs, doctors actively monitor participants with imaging tests to detect changes in the pancreas. PanCAN Patient Services can help provide more information about these studies.

PanCAN’s Early Detection Initiative will also start enrolling eligible participants in the coming months. Only people identified through their electronic medical records at participating institutions will be able to participate; it is not possible to volunteer for this study.

Contact a Patient Central Associate
For more information about risk factors and early detection as well as resources and information to help patients and caregivers cope with all aspects of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, contact PanCAN Patient Services.

#PancChat is a monthly Twitter event for the pancreatic cancer community, hosted by Let’s Win, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and Lustgarten Foundation, designed to increase engagement on a variety of important topics for patients, caregivers, researchers and healthcare providers. This article is based on the questions and answers from the September 2017 PancChat and has been updated in 2021 to reflect new developments.