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Pancreatic cancer

Diagnosis of pancreatic cancer

Your doctor at Dignity Health may use several different tools for diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, so many of the first steps are designed to rule out other conditions.

Common diagnostic tests for pancreatic cancer symptoms include:

  • A detailed health history to understand your symptoms, when they started, and whether you have other symptoms such as insomnia, blood clots, lymph node swelling, diarrhea, etc.
  • Blood testing to determine whether you have pancreatic cancer cells circulating your body.
  • Liver testing to rule out liver blockages, which can also cause symptoms.
  • Urine and stool tests to identify any potential issues with the digestive system.
  • Imaging tests like MRI, ultrasound, or CT scans to determine whether there are tumors in your pancreas or other organs.
  • Biopsy: If your doctor is confident you have a pancreatic tumor, a biopsy can confirm through a small tissue sample analyzed under a microscope.


Treatment depends upon the type and stage of pancreatic cancer. If the cancer is at an advanced stage, treatment may aim to ease pain and other symptoms rather than cure.

At Dignity Health, standard treatment options include:

  • Targeted cancer therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation

These treatments can kill cancer cells, slow the growth, or relieve pain and other symptoms.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove cancerous cells. This may involve removing part of the pancreas, the entire pancreas, or the pancreas and portions of the spleen, duodenum, and stomach. While it may be possible to live without a pancreas, it can cause diabetes since the pancreas is responsible for secreting insulin, a blood-sugar regulating hormone.

Surgeries to treat pancreatic cancer include:

  • Distal pancreatectomy, in which part of the pancreas and spleen are removed.
  • Whipple, in which part of the pancreas or the entire organ, lymph nodes, and a portion of the stomach are removed.
  • Total pancreatectomy, in which the entire pancreas and spleen are removed.
  • Palliative surgeries, in which blockages are removed without removing cancer or the organs themselves. These surgeries minimize pain and digestive upset and are usually considered when other kinds of surgery aren’t possible. 

If diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you may want to consider enrolling in a clinical trial for access to experimental treatments. New research and treatments for cancer are ongoing.

When to see a doctor

Pancreatic cancer is very rare, and many of its symptoms are the same as other, less serious conditions. Noticing signs of pancreatic cancer isn’t necessarily a cause for panic.

Nevertheless, because pancreatic cancer often does not cause symptoms until later stages, talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you notice unusual digestive symptoms. He or she can rule out pancreatic cancer and other GI system cancers.

The following symptoms may indicate an issue with one of your digestive organs and warrant a medical evaluation:

  • Jaundice (yellowing skin, dark urine, or yellow eyes)
  • Unusual digestive symptoms or unexplained weight loss
  • Changes in your stool
  • Unexplained nausea, loss of appetite, or vomiting

As part of our comprehensive oncology services, Dignity Health provides holistic pancreatic cancer treatment.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.