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Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer: Diagnostic Tests and Stages of Disease

Patients with symptoms suspicious for pancreatic cancer will have tests to determine the cause of these symptoms.

These test may include:

  • A CT scan which is performed using special protocols to ensure that very small tumors can be detected and that spread of the cancer to other organs is not detected.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound, used to diagnose small tumors that cannot be detected by a CT scan or MRI
  • A definite tissue diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, which then allows radiation and/or chemotherapy to proceed. This is performed by endoscopic ultrasound with fine needle aspiration. The endoscopic ultrasound provides image guidance for placing a fine needle to extract cells for evaluation, also known as a biopsy.

Pancreatic cancer can be classified (or staged) into three main groups:

  • Operable cancer, which means a tumor is able to be surgically removed primarily, or following chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy (resectable or borderline resectable). Borderline resectable tumors are those tumors which are touching important structures that may be able to be removed and reconstructed if necessary. These tumors are often treated with chemotherapy with or without radiation prior to surgery to try to shrink the tumor away from these important structures.
  • Locally advanced cancer, which means the tumor is found only in the pancreas with no evidence of spread to other organs, but is involving structures which cannot be safely removed (tumors at this stage are unresectable).
  • Metastatic disease, which means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, for example, the liver (tumors at this stage are also unresectable).

These classification groups help to determine the most effective way to treat the cancer. If it's determined that the cancer can be successfully removed, then surgery is considered.

For patients with localized, but not operable, cancer, two treatment strategies are used:

  • a combination of chemotherapy and radiation or
  • chemotherapy alone
  • Clinical trials which include promising therapies for pancreatic cancer, which are compared to existing treatments for pancreatic cancer.

View the available pancreatic cancer clinical trials

Request an appointment/referral

To make a first time appointment, please call the Patient Care Center at 865-1125 (Monday-Friday, 8am-5:30pm EST). If you would like to refer a patient, please contact our M-Line service: 800-962-3555. For more information, visit our Appointments web page.

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