Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers today. While it’s not as common as other cancers, it spreads silently for months until it reaches an advanced stage. Because doctors only catch it at such a late stage, it’s usually not treatable. The cancer usually occurs in people over 45 years old, with men slightly more likely to develop it. The major risk factor is smoking: smokers double their risk of pancreatic cancer compared to non-smokers.
How we Diagnose Cancer of the Pancreas Today
The pancreas is deep inside the body, so doctors can’t see or feel small tumors during a routine physical exam. It’s hard to diagnose pancreatic cancer in the early stages, since there are few symptoms at that point. For example, jaundice is one of the first symptoms of the cancer. If the cancer starts in the head of the pancreas near the common bile duct, it can cause jaundice when the tumors are still fairly small and treatable. But cancers that first develop in the body of the pancreas won’t affect the bile duct until they’ve spread further.
Usually, the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer comes when many symptoms start appearing at once. These symptoms include jaundice, abdominal pain, and weight loss. At that point, the patient will undergo various imaging tests. Biopsy— the removal and examination of pancreatic tissue—establishes the diagnosis. Often, by the time the patient gets his diagnosis, the cancer has spread throughout the body and a full cure is unlikely.
The medical community does not advise pancreatic cancer screening for the average person. There’s no evidence that screening is effective for reducing the death rate among patients who weren’t at risk. The recommendations for the at-risk population—those who carry genes that predispose them to the cancer or who have a family history of it—are ultrasound or MRI screening.
Possible New Screening Test
Researchers at UC San Diego have developed a blood test that may catch pancreatic cancer in its early stages. They say the test is easier and faster than other methods of screening. It works by separating exosomes—tiny fluid-filled sacs in the blood that carry signs of disease. Exosomes are so small, it’s hard to separate them from the blood around them. The researchers found a way to easily pick out the exosomes directly from the blood and keep them intact, ready to be analyzed for biomarkers of cancer or disease.
The scientists say their test had 99% accuracy. It shows great potential for early pancreatic cancer detection, and possibly a wide range of other cancers and diseases as well.