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Pancreatic Cancer Health Center

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Tests Detect Pancreatic Cancer Earlier

Studies Show New Screening Techniques Could Improve Survival Rates

Ultrasound Plus X-Rays Detect Cancer Earlier continued...

"It gives us a really nice view of the pancreas. We can find tiny lesions that are the earliest signs of pancreatic cancer," Brentnall says.

Patients with abnormal findings on the endoscopic ultrasound were then offered specialized X-rays of the ducts that carry bile from the liver or gallbladder to the small intestine. Sometimes pancreatic cancer causes these ducts to narrow and block or slow the flow of bile.

"The ducts should normally be nice and smooth. But in people with precancerous changes, they become bumpy and irregular," Brentnall tells WebMD.

If both tests were abnormal, patients were offered surgery to have their pancreas removed. None of 20 patients who had the operation developed pancreatic cancer during an average follow-up of seven years.

Without the surgery, these patients would have had a high risk of developing incurable cancer, she says.

However, the surgery is not without risks of its own. Without a pancreas, you don't produce insulin to regulate your blood sugar, causing you to develop insulin-dependent diabetes.

Blood Test Plus Ultrasound Detects Cancer

In a second study, researchers found that a combination of endoscopic ultrasound and a blood test for a tumor marker called CA19-9 helped to detect pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage in high-risk people.

So far, 272 people ages 50 to 80 with at least one first-degree relative who had the disease have been screened with the combination in the ongoing study.

In addition to family history, "age is another factor we can use to target people for screening," says researcher Richard Zubarik, MD, associate professor of medicine and chief of endoscopy at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vt. More than 90% of people who develop pancreatic cancer are over age 50, he tells WebMD.

CA 19-9 is often produced by pancreatic cancers, and its level is elevated in more than 90% of pancreatic cancer patients. It's typically used to gauge how well a treatment is working in those already diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The cost to detect one case of pancreatic cancer was just over $14,000, and the cost to detect precancerous abnormal cell growth was about $11,000.

"If we use this protocol, we can detect cancer at an early stage," Zubarik says.

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