Certain types of endoscopies, like endoscopic ultrasounds, are commonly used to detect pancreatic cancer. But pancreatic cancer can be hard to spot in its early stages, even with imaging tests.

In its early stages, pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect, which means it’s unlikely that your doctor will spot it on an unrelated endoscopy. But if a doctor suspects that you have pancreatic cancer, they may order several imaging tests, including certain types of endoscopies.

An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube with a camera on it that a doctor inserts into your body, through an opening like your mouth, or through a surgical incision. Endoscopies that can detect pancreatic cancer differ from more common endoscopies, like the type that’s used to examine your upper gastrointestinal tract.

To look for pancreatic cancer, doctors use endoscopies with additional technologies and tools, like ultrasound and biopsy capabilities.

Keep reading to learn more about endoscopies and the different types doctors use to help them reach a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Doctors often use a combination of several tests to help them reach a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, determine the cancer stage, and plan for treatment. This can include blood work, biopsies, and advanced imaging tests like endoscopic ultrasounds.

Endoscopic ultrasounds are one of the most reliable ways to confirm a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. This test involves an endoscope fitted with an ultrasound probe, which uses sound waves to capture images of structures deep inside the body, like the pancreas.

Endoscopic ultrasounds may actually be more sensitive than other imaging tests, like CT scans, because they can reveal small tumors that other scans don’t pick up.

If a doctor orders an endoscopy for pancreatic cancer, they may be looking for confirmation of tumors or atypical cell growth. They may also use the procedure to help guide a biopsy or to see if the cancer has spread beyond your pancreas.

Certain types of endoscopies help your doctor get a clearer picture of your pancreas and the surrounding tissues. They include endoscopic ultrasound and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).

Endoscopic ultrasound

With this procedure, a doctor will attach a small ultrasound probe that sends detailed images of your digestive system to a computer for analysis. The doctor places the endoscope down your throat, then passes it through your esophagus and stomach until it reaches the small intestine.

Experts consider endoscopic ultrasound one of the best options for detecting pancreatic cancer, due to its precise methods. According to a 2020 research review, it carries an accuracy rate of 85% to 92%.

Endoscopic ultrasounds may also be most effective for finding pancreatic tumors that are 2 centimeters or smaller, which experts consider early-stage.

During an endoscopic ultrasound, a doctor may also choose to perform a biopsy of any suspicious lesions or growths in the pancreas.

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography

This type of imaging test specifically looks for changes in the pancreatic ducts and bile ducts, such as tumors that may cause blockages.

During an ERCP, a doctor places an endoscope the same way as an endoscopic ultrasound, down your throat and toward the small intestine. They also take X-rays of your pancreas and the surrounding tissue. Your doctor may inject a type of contrast dye that makes it easier to detect blockages.

If a doctor finds a pancreatic duct blockage, they may perform a biopsy to help rule out or confirm pancreatic cancer.

While an ERCP may help confirm the presence of pancreatic tumors, doctors don’t usually consider it a first-line test for diagnosing pancreatic cancer. In some cases, the procedure may help a doctor decide on next steps, such as surgery.

Endoscopic biopsy

A doctor may perform a biopsy during another endoscopic procedure for pancreatic cancer, such as an endoscopic ultrasound or ERCP.

The exact biopsy methods are slightly different between endoscopic ultrasound and ERCP. During an endoscopic ultrasound, a doctor may be able to take a tissue sample through a needle extraction. During an ERCP, they can use a small brush to help scrape cells from suspicious blockages in the pancreatic ducts.

It’s important to note that treatment of suspected pancreatic cancer will rarely proceed without confirmation from a biopsy. This will help your doctor decide on the most effective treatment possible, which may include chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Aside from an endoscopy, a doctor may also consider other potential tests to help diagnose pancreatic cancer, including:

  • Blood tests: These may include a complete blood count, liver function test, and tumor markers that may complement other diagnostic tests.
  • CT scan: This may help provide clear images of the pancreas, surrounding lymph nodes, and distant organs. A CT scan may also help your doctor determine whether surgery can help.
  • Abdominal ultrasound: This may be a first-line imaging test if a doctor is unsure of the cause of your symptoms. However, they may prefer an endoscopic ultrasound or a CT scan if they suspect pancreatic cancer.
  • MRI scan: While not as preferable as a CT scan in diagnosing pancreatic cancer, an MRI may be useful in imaging the bile or pancreatic ducts.
  • PET scan: While not a first-line treatment, a PET scan may help diagnose more advanced stages of pancreatic cancer. Doctors perform this method by injecting radioactive sugar into your body to help identify cancer cells.
  • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC): Doctors only perform this when they can’t use an ERCP. A PTC involves the use of X-rays and a specialized dye to help look for potential blockages.
  • Fecal testing: According to one 2022 study, microbiota screenings, which evaluate the balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria, could potentially help assess your risk for developing pancreatic cancer.

How can I detect pancreatic cancer symptoms?

It’s difficult to detect pancreatic cancer early, partly because it doesn’t typically cause symptoms until it grows larger or spreads to other organs, which happens in the later stages.

For this reason, it’s important to alert your doctor of any unusual symptoms you have that may indicate pancreatic cancer, such as abdominal pain, yellow skin or eyes (jaundice), or unexplained weight loss.

Can colonoscopy detect pancreatic cancer?

Due to the position of the pancreas in your body, doctors cannot use a colonoscopy to detect pancreatic cancer.

A colonoscopy is another type of imaging procedure that uses a small camera on a scope inside the body. But unlike an endoscopy, a colonoscopy looks for problems in your lower GI tract, such as the colon or rectum, helping detect cancers, ulcers, or polyps in these areas.

For this reason, doctors primarily use a colonoscopy as a screening tool for colorectal cancer. Doctors may recommend these screenings start at 45 years old or younger.

An endoscopy is a type of procedure doctors use to detect many health conditions inside the body. It can also play an important role in diagnosing pancreatic cancer.

Especially when doctors combine it with other imaging tools, such as an ultrasound, an endoscopy can help detect pancreatic cancer and determine its stage.

Due to the difficulties that link with detecting pancreatic cancer early, it’s important to talk with a doctor as soon as you experience any unusual symptoms, such as belly pain, unexplained weight loss, or GI problems.