Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis

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If pancreatic cancer is suspected, the first step is to perform a series of tests. Imaging tests often are used to produce pictures of internal organs and tissues. If these tests detect pancreatic cancer that appears to be resectable (see the Staging section), surgery is often the next step. In some cases, a tumor marker CA 19-9 (cancer antigen) test also may be performed.


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The following diagnostic tests may be used to help diagnose pancreatic cancer:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scan)–In this test, the patient passes through a tunnel surrounded by a powerful magnet and a computer tracks the magnetism and produces pictures of the tissues being studied.
  • Upper GI (gastrointestinal) series–In this procedure, the patient swallows a contrast solution containing the mineral barium. While the solution is in the digestive system, x-rays are taken to detect abnormalities.
  • Computerized axial tomography (CAT scan or CT scan)–This is a specialized x-ray technique that produces detailed cross-sectional images of internal organs and tissues.
  • Ultrasound–This test uses high frequency sound waves that bounce off structures in the patient’s body. A computer translates these echoes into a sonogram image.

If imaging tests detect an abnormality that warrants further investigation, abiopsy may be performed. In a biopsy, a sample of tissue is removed and examined for cancer cells.

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