Blood tests can be an important part of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. With this type of cancer, a timely diagnosis is vital, however, pancreatic cancer is often difficult to detect early. Certain blood tests can help lead to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), pancreatic cancer makes up about 3% of cancer diagnoses and about 7% of cancer deaths in the United States. A person’s average lifetime risk of developing the condition is 1 in 64.

In this article, we’ll look at the blood tests that can be used to help diagnose pancreatic cancer as well as other diagnostic tests that may be used for this type of cancer.

There’s no specific blood test that can diagnose pancreatic cancer. However, the results of certain blood tests may indicate the need for further testing to diagnose or rule out pancreatic cancer.

Blood tests for tumor markers

Tumor markers are substances that are either made by cancer cells or made by your body in response to cancer. Some types of tumor markers can be found in the blood and could indicate the presence of cancer.

The two tumor markers most commonly used to help detect pancreatic cancer are called CA19-9 and CEA. These are proteins that, at higher levels, can be detected in the blood of some people with pancreatic cancer.

However, not everyone with pancreatic cancer has high levels of these proteins. Also, other health conditions can also cause high levels of these proteins.

Blood tests for early detection

In addition to tumor marker tests, some newer tests are geared toward detecting pancreatic cancer early. This is important since the outlook for pancreatic cancer declines sharply if the diagnosis is only made once the cancer has progressed to a more advanced stage.

These early detection blood tests include the GalleriTM test and the PanCan-d test.

  • The GalleriTM test can detect more than 50 types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer. It does this by looking for DNA from cancer cells that are shed into the blood. DNA from cancer cells can look different than the DNA of healthy cells.
  • The PanCan-d test is specific for pancreatic cancer. It detects 9 different blood biomarkers for pancreatic cancer, including CA19-9. The measurements from these biomarkers are then combined into an equation to produce your result.

There are, however, some drawbacks to these tests:

  • Neither test has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  • Testing can be costly, about $1,000, and isn’t covered by insurance, although payment plans may be available.
  • Who can get the tests may be restricted based on age, pancreatic cancer risk factors, and location.

Other blood tests

The following blood tests don’t detect pancreatic cancer but are still important for diagnosis. They can give your doctor a better idea of your overall health and help confirm or rule out other health conditions:

  • Liver function tests: Liver function tests look at how well your liver is working. If you have jaundice, a common sign of pancreatic cancer, the tests can help your doctor determine if it’s caused by your liver or a blockage in your bile duct, which could be due to a tumor.
  • Blood chemistry: Blood chemistry tests give your doctor a picture of your overall health. They can show how well your kidneys are functioning, as well as the levels of substances like glucose, fats, and electrolytes in your blood.
  • Complete blood count: A complete blood count assesses the levels of different types of blood cells in your blood. It gives your doctor information on how well your bone marrow is functioning.

Blood tests in development for pancreatic cancer

There are also additional blood tests for pancreatic cancer that are currently in development. One of these is the liquid biopsy, which looks for pancreatic cancer-associated proteins, cells, or DNA in the blood.

A panel of different proteins developed by a research group in Sweden has shown promise for differentiating between early-stage pancreatic cancer and controls. This technique is still being refined.

Another type of test detects extracellular vesicles in blood. These are bubble-like structures made by cancer cells that can be used in cell-to-cell communication. A 2022 study found that this technique could be promising for detecting several types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer.

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In addition to blood tests, other tests play an important role in diagnosing pancreatic cancer.

Imaging tests help your doctor look for signs of cancer in your body. A variety of imaging tests may be used, including:

  • CT scan: CT scans use X-rays to make cross-sectional images of your body. When pancreatic cancer is suspected, a special type of CT scan called a multiphase CT scan is often used.
  • MRI scan: An MRI scan makes an image using strong magnets and radio waves. While CT scans are typically the standard imaging for pancreatic cancer, MRI scans may sometimes also be used.
  • PET scan: PET scans use a special radioactive marker that localizes to cancer cells. These cells are then detected using a specialized camera. It can be combined with a CT scan to better understand how far the cancer has spread.
  • Ultrasound: Ultrasound uses sound waves to make images of the inside of your body. A type of ultrasound called an endoscopic ultrasound can help diagnose pancreatic cancer.
  • Cholangiopancreatography: A cholangiopancreatography is a type of imaging procedure that can help your doctor find tumors that may be blocking ducts in and around the pancreas.

Another important test for pancreatic cancer is a tissue sample, or biopsy, that’s collected from the affected area and is checked for cancer cells. If cancer is present, further tests can help better characterize the cancer.

Pancreatic cancer typically doesn’t cause any symptoms early on. That’s why it often isn’t diagnosed until it has reached a more advanced stage.

When the symptoms of pancreatic cancer do develop, they can include:

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor. While these symptoms may not be caused by pancreatic cancer, there may be another medical condition that needs to be treated.

Because pancreatic cancer is typically only diagnosed once it’s reached a more advanced stage, its outlook is often quite poor. This underlines the importance of early testing and the need for improved screening tools.

Cancer outlook is often given as a 5-year survival rate. This is the percentage of people diagnosed with a certain type and stage of cancer that are still living 5 years after their diagnosis.

The SEER database of the National Cancer Institute estimates 5-year survival based on how far the cancer has spread:

  • Localized: When pancreatic cancer remains localized to the pancreas, the 5-year survival is 43.9%.
  • Regional: If pancreatic cancer has spread into nearby tissues or lymph nodes, the 5-year survival is 14.7%.
  • Distant: Pancreatic cancer that’s spread to more distant areas of the body has a 5-year survival rate of 3.1%.

These percentages are calculated based on data from many people with pancreatic cancer over a long period of time. As such, they don’t reflect individual factors like age and overall health or more recent advances in treatment or detection.

Blood tests are an important part of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. However, these tests alone aren’t enough to confirm a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer often isn’t diagnosed until it’s advanced and then the outlook is very poor. Because of this, doctors and scientists continue to work to find improved ways, including blood tests, to detect pancreatic cancer early.

See your doctor promptly if you have symptoms like jaundice, abdominal pain, and unintentional weight loss. These are all signs of a potentially serious medical condition that needs to be addressed.