Symptoms and diagnosis of pancreatic cancer

Older man touching his stomach

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer 

  • Pain or discomfort in your tummy area, which may spread to your back
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Indigestion 
  • Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes, dark urine and itchy skin)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea (feeling sick) 
  • Feeling full very quickly
  • A lasting change in your bowel habits – pale, smelly, floaty stools
  • A new diagnosis of diabetes without weight gain
  • Tiredness

Sometimes there may be no signs or symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer. 

All these symptoms can be caused by other common conditions, but it’s important to go to the GP and get any unusual changes checked out. 

Can I be screened for pancreatic cancer?

Testing for pancreatic cancer when you have no symptoms is called screening. There is no national screening programme for pancreatic cancer as it is not a common cancer and there is no single test to diagnose it. If you're worried about your risk of pancreatic cancer, talk to your family doctor. 

If you have a strong family history of pancreatic disease or cancer or you have one of the genes that increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, talk to your GP about screening. Screening can include a CT scan, or MRI scan and an EUS (endoscopic ultrasound) every 3 years. Screening usually starts at the age of 40.

Talk to your GP about screening if you have a family history of pancreatic cancer or genetic risk factors.

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer

Tests with your GP

Your family doctor (GP) will talk to you about your symptoms and your family history and examine you.

If your GP thinks you need tests at the hospital, they will refer you to a consultant. Depending on your test results, you may be referred to The National Surgical Centre for Pancreatic Cancer at St Vincent's, Dublin and Cork University Hospital.

Tests at the hospital

Blood tests

Blood tests can check your general health. A special blood test called CA 19-9 might also be taken. CA 19-9 is a substance made by the pancreas and is called a biomarker. If it is raised, it can help to diagnose pancreatic cancer. Even with pancreatic cancer, however, you can have a normal level of CA 19-9.

CT scan/MDCT

These are special types of X-ray to give a picture of the tissues inside your body, such as your pancreas and liver. The multi-detector CT scan (MDCT) can give quick and high-quality images of your pancreas.

PTC (percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography)

This gives X-ray images of pancreas/bile ducts and surrounding area. Your doctor numbs an area of your tummy (abdomen) with local anaesthetic first. He or she then puts a thin needle through your tummy and into your liver. A dye is injected into the area so that your doctor can see any blockages on the X-ray. Your doctor may also take a sample of cells (biopsy) during the PTC.

MRCP scan

An MRI scan that shows up the tissues of the pancreatic duct, bile ducts and gallbladder in more detail. 

MRA scan

A special type of MRI scan used to look at the blood vessels around the pancreas and liver. MRA stands for magnetic resonance angiography (MRA).

Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS)

An ultrasound probe is passed through a tube passed into your body through your mouth. It can take ultrasound pictures from inside your body to help find small cancers. 

Laparoscopy

To do this test the doctor needs to make a small cut in your abdomen so he can put in a scope which he can look through and take biopsy. By looking through the scope the doctor can see your pancreas and nearby organs and can decide what surgery might be suitable. This test is done under anaesthetic. 

Biopsy

This means taking a sample of the cells in the pancreas and looking at them under a microscope. A biopsy can be taken during an EUS or laparoscopy or when a stent is being put in. This test can confirm a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

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