Early detection of pancreatic cancer through screening

Early detection of pancreatic cancer through screening

Julie Scott, DNP
Julie Scott, DNP

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen that secretes pancreatic enzymes that help digestion. In addition, the pancreas also produces insulin, which helps control blood sugar levels in the body. When pancreas cells become abnormal, they grow irregularly and out of control. This abnormal cell growth is pancreatic cancer.

Screening tests are meant to find cancer early before it causes any symptoms. This could be important for pancreatic cancer, as it is often not found until it is advanced. However, no standard screening for pancreatic cancer exists. People at high risk for developing pancreatic cancer may be suggested to have surveillance testing.

Who’s at high risk for pancreatic cancer?

People with a family history of pancreatic cancer can be at a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Some gene mutations are inherited, making it more likely for cancer development. Some of these gene mutations include:

● BRCA1 and BRCA2

● PALB2

● CDKN2A

● ATM

Other familial cancer syndromes can be associated with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer include:

● Lynch syndrome

● Li-Fraumeni syndrome

● Familial adenomatous polyposis

● Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome

If you’re considered to be in a high-risk category for developing pancreatic cancer, surveillance imaging may be recommended. It’s important to know that this is an area in which there is no consensus on the best imaging tests or frequency and that all decisions should be made between you and your healthcare team.

Imaging Tests

Multiple tests exist that can help look for pancreatic cancer. CT (computed tomography) scans can be done, often with contrast, to see if anything looks suspicious on the pancreas. The scan can also be done with a pancreatic protocol, which is timed to get a better look at this organ.

Another test option is the ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography). This is done by a gastroenterologist, who uses a flexible camera to move from the stomach into the small intestine, and into the pancreatic ducts to see if there are any abnormalities.

Similarly to the ERCP above, an ultrasound can be guided through the stomach, small intestines, and near the pancreas to get ultrasound imaging. This is called a EUS (endoscopic ultrasound).

Other imaging tests can include standard ultrasound, MRI, and PET scan.

Screening for pancreatic cancer is important for earlier detection and treatment. Although there are currently no screening guidelines in the United States, that does not mean you cannot get screened. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors and whether or not pancreatic cancer screening makes sense.

If you are 50 years or older and have a family history of pancreatic cancer, you should discuss screening options with your physician. By increasing awareness and speaking with our doctors, we can make strides in the fight against pancreatic cancer.

Julie Scott, DNP
Julie Scott, DNP
Julie is an oncology certified Oncology Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of medical oncology experience. In addition to her clinical work, she is an accomplished healthcare writer providing oncology content for various publications. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member for a Master's nursing program and a chair for Doctoral nursing students.

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