Why is Pancreatic Cancer so Challenging?

The pancreas is located deep inside the body, so early tumors cannot be seen or felt by health care providers during routine physical exams. This makes it hard to see the pancreas with imaging technologies and sometimes makes it difficult to access to remove cells for a biopsy.

Pancreatic cancer is a relatively rare cancer and it typically affects people older than age 50. Pancreatic cancer is hard to diagnose because the early symptoms are usually vague. Early symptoms may be nothing more than a general feeling of discomfort in the abdomen or an unexplained weight loss.

Another factor that makes pancreatic cancer so deadly is its resistance to treatment. At this time, the only possibility for long-term survival is surgically removing the cancer. Researchers are working on ways to detect the disease earlier, because that might allow more people to be eligible for surgery.

What tests are used to diagnose pancreatic cancer?

  • History and physical exam
  • Computed tomography (CT, CAT) scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Somatostatin receptor scintigraphy(OctreoScan) – helpful in diagnosing pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Ultrasonography (ultrasound)
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • Angiography
  • Blood tests– Elevated blood levels of the tumor markers CA 19-9 and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) may point to a diagnosis of  pancreatic cancer made of exocrine cells, but these tests aren’t always accurate
  • Biopsy – A patient’s history, physical exam, and imaging test results may strongly suggest pancreatic cancer, but the only way to be sure is to remove a small sample of tumor and look at it under the microscope. This procedure is called a biopsy.

When disease has advanced beyond surgery’s reach, chemotherapy is the standard treatment. Two drugs are FDA-approved for the treatment of pancreatic cancer: gemcitabine (Gemzar) and erlotinib (Tarceva).

Research focusing on pancreatic cancer is increasing. Researchers are investigating ways to more effectively screen for the disease and examining possibilities for better treatment options.

Continue learning about pancreatic cancer treatment and research at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center