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Pancreatic cancer diagnosis

Pancreatic cancer is not usually detected until it's advanced. Do not try to diagnose cancer or treat yourself using online sites.

Your doctor may use a range of tests and techniques to diagnose the cause of symptoms, such as:

Your doctor may then recommend other tests to indicate if you have pancreatic cancer and determine whether or not the cancer has spread.

These tests may include:

  • a CT scan (computed tomography)
  • an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
  • an ultrasound
  • a PET scan (positron emission tomography) which can show how far a cancer has spread.

To get a definite diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, you need a biopsy. A biopsy is a test of a sample of tissue. It can identify if you have cancer and, depending on the type of biopsy, can determine how far it’s spread.

There are several ways the biopsy can be performed:

  • inserting a needle into the tissue through the abdominal wall to capture a sample
  • inserting a camera-tipped tube through your mouth down the gut to collect images from the area
  • inserting a tube through the abdominal wall with an ultrasound probe attached to view and collect a sample
  • a laparoscopy, which involves making small incisions in your abdomen that allow the surgeon to collect samples and examine the area.

If pancreatic cancer is likely and it seems the tumour could be removed, your doctor may recommend surgery without a biopsy.

Stages of pancreatic cancer

These stages describe how far the cancer has spread:

  • stage I – the cancer has grown but is still only in the pancreas; less than 2 cm across is stage Ia, more than 2 cm across is stage Ib
  • stage II – local spread; there is growth outside the pancreas or into nearby lymph nodes
  • stage III – wider spread into major blood vessels or nerves but no metastasis (spread to other organs)
  • stage IV – confirmed spread to other organs.

These stages guide treatment options.

Last reviewed: July 2017

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