Lab Testing for Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic Cancer refers to the development of abnormal cells within the pancreas. As the cancerous or abnormal cells continue to develop, they turn into malignant tumors and damage the pancreas leading to a long list of symptoms. These tumors also cause the pancreas to cease working as it should in a healthy human being before the cancer spreads to other organs and/or tissues.   

Generally described as a flat, narrow-sized gland, the pancreas is about 6 inches in length and resides within the abdominal cavity, situated under the liver and behind the stomach. The pancreas is noted for having three distinct sections (head, body, and tail). For the head section, it is connected into the duodenum or small intestine. 

There are small-sized ducts inside the pancreas designed to push bicarbonate and digestive enzymes into the pancreatic duct. The pancreatic duct itself stretches across the pancreas (head to tail) and straight into the small intestine.  

It’s also important to note that there is a common bile duct that is positioned through the head of the pancreas and is responsible for transporting bile from the gallbladder/liver into the small intestine. The two ducts (bile and pancreatic) end up joining at the entrance of the small intestine (duodenum) as they have access to the same opening. 

The pancreas is made of two types of tissues:

The exocrine pancreas is responsible for producing active enzymes to handle proteins, fats, and carbs within the small intestine. When the enzymes are produced, they are carried forward into the small intestine before being activated as required.  

The endocrine pancreas is responsible for producing and releasing hormones such as glucagon and insulin before pushing them into the blood. By doing this, the body can regulate its blood glucose level at the cellular level and use it as a form of energy.   

With pancreatic cancers, abnormal cell development begins within the exocrine tissues.  Due to this, it becomes challenging to diagnose early-stage pancreatic cancer in patients as the symptoms are limited/absent without visible tumors that would demand an immediate physical examination. Once the symptoms do arise, the patient starts having severe symptoms such as jaundice because cancer has spread throughout the body. 

Cancer is also able to start within the pancreatic cells that are responsible for hormone production (i.e., neuroendocrine cells). When this happens, they produce what are known as neuroendocrine tumors (or islet cell tumors), but this is far rarer than conventional exocrine tumors. 

With islet cell tumors, most of them are known for being benign/non-cancerous, which means they don’t spread throughout the body. However, malignant/cancerous cells are known to grow at a slower pace in comparison to exocrine tumors. 

To diagnose or detect islet cell tumors, it’s possible to do so at an earlier stage as they do appear with a long list of symptoms due to the excessive pancreatic hormone production such as glucagon and insulin. Certain tests can be used to determine whether or not these hormone levels are spiked in the blood. 

The rest of this guide will focus on exocrine tumors (i.e., pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma) as they are far more common than islet cell tumors. 

Pancreatic cancer is renowned for being the fourth-leading reason for cancer-related death in the US across men and women. Research by the American Cancer Society states that approximately 57,000 Americans are diagnosed with this type of cancer each year, and 46,000 die each year. This particular type of cancer causes more deaths in men than in women.  

Risk Factors 

A common reason for pancreatic cancer is smoking. Studies have shown 25% of pancreatic cancers are caused by smoking cigarettes, cigars, and/or smokeless tobacco products. If a person stops smoking, their risk for pancreatic cancer begins dropping substantially. 

Additional risk factors include: 

  • Chronic Pancreatitis 
  • Excessive Weight 
  • Family History of Pancreatic Cancer/Pancreatitis 
  • History of Diabetes (Especially Type 2 Diabetes) 
  • Genetic Predisposition (i.e., Hereditary Ovarian Cancer Syndrome, Breast Cancer, Familial Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma Syndrome) 

Signs and Symptoms 

There is a common set of symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer, but most of them are subtle. 

These can include: 

  • Itchy Skin 
  • Nausea 
  • Loss of Appetite 
  • Light-Colored Stools 
  • Dark Urine 
  • Abdominal Pain/Back Pain 
  • Jaundice 
  • Extreme Fatigue 
  • Unexplained Weight Loss 

It’s important to note that these symptoms are also present with other conditions aside from pancreatic cancer. This causes the diagnosis to be missed during the earlier stages of pancreatic cancer. Most of these cases are recognized when a person is vomiting or has chronic pain, irregular blood sugar control, and/or malabsorption. This is when cancer starts to spread onto other organs and/or tissues. 

Lab Testing 

As of right now, there are no specific lab tests to run for early-stage pancreatic cancer. Researchers continue to pour time into finding the right test to detect pancreatic cancer during the early stages of this condition, as that is when it’s most treatable. There have been certain breakthroughs when it comes to experimental tests, but nothing concrete is available in the form of a screening/diagnostic test. 

If you have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, additional blood tests are run to help determine the prognosis and appropriate treatment plan.  

These can include: 

CEA (or Carcinoembryonic Antigen) – This is not reserved just for pancreatic cancer, but it can spot elevated levels of the tumor and help with the prognosis 

CA 19-9 (or Cancer Antigen 19-9) – This is a test to find a tumor marker to measure the pancreatic cancer treatment and its effectiveness. It doesn’t assist with the diagnosis process as many non-cancerous conditions also come with elevated CA 19-9 levels. 

There are additional lab tests that can be run at the same time: 

Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (or CMP) – These are multiple tests run to assess the condition of a patient’s kidneys and liver after a jaundice diagnosis. 

Complete Blood Count (or CBC) – This helps assess the blood cells (platelets, red blood cells, white blood cells). 

Amylase/Lipase – This test assists with assessing the blood for a person’s pancreatic enzymes, which can be elevated due to pancreatic cancer but are far more common in non-cancerous pancreatic disease.