Can You Detect Pancreatic Cancer in Its Early Stages?

Categories: Gastrointestinal Cancers

February 24, 2022

Early detection of just about any type of cancer will make treatment a lot easier. This is especially true with pancreatic cancer. If detected early, in stage 1, oncologists will have more treatment options than when it’s found in later stages and has moved to other areas of the body.

The problem is, early detection can be hard because there aren’t a lot of obvious signs that pancreatic cancer has developed. Because of this, many pancreatic cancer patients have a late-stage disease by the time it’s found. Thankfully new pancreatic cancer treatments will soon be more widely available. Several cancer research studies – including some available in the Portland area – are underway to find better treatment options. This includes targeted therapies and immunotherapies that have the potential to increase survival rates. 

What is Pancreatic Cancer and Why is It Hard to Identify?

The pancreas is part of the upper gastrointestinal tract and lies behind the lower part of your stomach, releasing enzymes for digestion and producing hormones to manage blood sugar, including insulin. The most common type of pancreatic cancer begins in cancer cells growing in the lining of ducts that carry digestive enzymes. Although less common, other pancreatic cancers can form in the hormone-producing cells or other pancreas cells. 

Like many types of cancer, the exact cause is unclear, but smoking and inheriting specific gene mutations increase risk. Risk is also higher for people with diabetes, pancreatitis (an inflamed pancreas), obesity, and older people. 

The connection between pancreatic cancer and diabetes is especially strong. About 25% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer were first diagnosed with diabetes. 

Survival rates are rather low compared to other types of cancer because it's rarely detected in the early stages when it's most curable. Symptoms usually don't occur until the cancer has progressed into later stages. 

Are there Symptoms You Should Look for that Could be Related to Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is deep inside the body, and early tumors cannot be seen or felt during physical exams. Here are some things pancreatic cancer patients notice before a diagnosis:

  • Feeling bloated or full after eating very little.
  • Losing interest in smoking, drinking alcohol, or drinking coffee suddenly. 
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Food isn’t digesting well.
  • Your previously controlled diabetes suddenly isn’t under control when no other changes were made such as weight loss or new medications.
  • Pain in the back or abdomen that you can’t explain. 

If you notice any of these by themselves or combined with other symptoms talk to your doctor. Tell them about your risk factors and your concerns so they can determine if some testing could be done to check the function of your pancreas and liver.

There are other symptoms that appear when pancreatic cancer has progressed even further including: 

  • Jaundice (yellowish skin and white part of the eyes) if it blocks the liver's bile duct 
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Itchy skin
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Blood clots
  • Bowel obstruction if the tumor presses on the small intestine 
  • Gallbladder or liver enlargement

Are There Screening and Diagnostic Tests for Pancreatic Cancer?

There is no standard screening test available for pancreatic cancer like there is for colorectal, breast, cervical, and prostate cancers. The best thing you can do is know your risk level and be aware of changes in your body. 

In people who have a history of cancer in their family or who have a specific genetic mutation, genetic testing can be used to help the family understand if they are at an increased risk of this type of cancer or possibly other types.  

Treating Pancreatic Cancer 

Pancreatic cancer is most commonly found after a CT scan of the abdomen area to look for a tumor or other signs of cancer development. The treatment options are chosen based on the cancer's stage, the patient's age, and other health conditions. A treatment plan is developed by an oncologist that will include one or more of the following; surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy. 

Much of the clinical research on pancreatic cancer today focuses on early detection or finding it in the precancerous stage – especially for those who are at high risk. 

The GI Cancer Specialist at Compass Oncology can provide the information and counseling you need to make an informed decision about pancreatic cancer treatment. Do your best to look out for symptoms that can improve the outcome of treatment. Request an appointment at one of our cancer centers in the Portland-Vancouver area if you would like to discuss a treatment plan.