Is there a screening test for pancreatic cancer?
There is no single diagnostic test that can tell you if you have pancreatic cancer. Definitive diagnosis requires a series of imaging scans, blood tests and biopsy—and those tests are typically only done only if you have symptoms. At that point, since early pancreatic cancer does not usually show symptoms, the cancer has likely grown and even spread to other organs.
People often wonder if there’s a way to screen for pancreatic cancer so it can be caught early, while surgery is still possible, and before the cancer spreads. For individuals who aren’t at an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer, there is no recommended screening routine like there is for breast and colon cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, this is because none of the available tests have proven to actually lower the risk of dying from the disease.
Pancreatic Cancer Blood Test
Researchers are working on creating an effective screening blood test for early detection of tumor markers associated with pancreatic cancer. The protein CA 19-9 is a tumor marker that can be detected by a blood test; however, levels of this protein do not reliably reflect the presence of pancreatic cancer. Doctors may use the test for patients who have symptoms or require assessment while undergoing treatment.
Screening Patients at High Risk for Pancreatic Cancer
While there are no widely accepted protocols for pancreatic cancer screening, most doctors do recommend screening patients who are known to be at a higher risk due to family history or the presence of associated conditions. Clinical trials may even be available to screen and follow individuals with a strong family history.
Read more about pancreatic cancer risk factors.
Family History of Pancreatic Cancer
Patients with a strong family history—an immediate family member (sibling or parent) or multiple second-degree relatives—should discuss early screening with their doctor, even if there are no symptoms present.
There are certain inherited abnormalities and syndromes that can raise your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. These include mutations in the BRCA2 gene, Lynch syndrome and familial pancreatitis. Once you complete genetic blood testing to identify these abnormalities, you can work with your doctor to plan for additional screening if necessary.
If you believe you have a genetic predisposition to pancreatic cancer, consider asking your doctor to put you in touch with a genetic counselor. A genetic counselor can interpret test results, help you understand your true level of risk and discuss possible next steps.
Benign Pancreatic Tumors
Individuals with a benign tumor (or cyst) called an intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm (IPMN ) have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer because certain subtypes of these lesions can become malignant. If a patient is known to have IPMNs, and imaging suggests growth, the doctor may recommend treatment right away or ongoing screening.
More Information About Pancreatic Cancer from Johns Hopkins Medicine
Screening Program for High-Risk Patients
The Skip Viragh Center for Pancreas Cancer has one of the largest studies to screen individuals with a family history of pancreatic cancer and is one of the world leaders in prevention of pancreatic cancer. Our physicians are leading an international consortium of medical centers in a collaborative, worldwide screening effort.
Learn more about the National Familial Pancreas Tumor Registry (NFPTR).
More Information About Pancreatic Cancer in the Health Library