Health A-Z

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Diagnosis

If your doctor thinks you may have pancreatic cancer, he or she may suggest the following tests:

  • Blood tests Simple tests can help rule out other possible causes of your symptoms. Some blood tests can hint at pancreatic cancer, but can't confirm if you have it.

  • Ultrasound In this test, sound waves create a picture of internal organs. This test is also most useful in ruling out other causes of your symptoms (for example, gallbladder disease or cysts in the pancreas).

  • Endoscopic Ultrasound. For this test, your doctor threads a tube through your digestive tract so the sound waves can get closer to the pancreas. He or she can use a special instrument to take small samples of the pancreas for further testing (biopsy).

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan A CT or "CAT" scan is usually a good way to get a picture of what is happening in the abdomen and can help detect pancreatic cancer.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan This test uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce images of organs in the body. Your doctor may order a special type of MRI to look more closely at the structures around the pancreas.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scanning Doctors use this test to see if pancreatic cancer is growing or has spread. PET scans use a form of radioactive sugar. Certain types of cancers, such as pancreatic cancer take up more sugar that the surrounding tissues and can be seen with special cameras.

  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography This test looks for blockages in the pancreatic tubes that carry digestive enzymes. The doctor threads a tube through your mouth into the small intestine. She or he then injects a special dye that will show up on x-rays. If the x-ray shows a blockage or tumor, the doctor can tissue samples to test for cancer. This test can be very useful, but is risky. Only highly experienced doctors should do it.

  • Angiography: This test looks at the blood supply to pancreatic tumors. This can help doctors determine if it is possible to remove the cancer with surgery.

  • CT-guided biopsy A CT scan is used to guide the biopsy needle to the right spot for obtaining samples of suspicious tissue. Rarely, surgery may be needed to make the diagnosis.

  • Staging laparoscopy. Sometimes doctors want to get a direct look at the pancreas. This operation uses a small camera at the end of a tube. The doctor can see the pancreas and the organs around it without major surgery. He or she may take samples of the pancreas to help determine how aggressive the cancer is.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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