Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer

Overview | Causes | Symptoms | Genetics | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prognosis | Coping

If pancreatic cancer is suspected, several tests can be run to confirm the diagnosis and assess the situation:

History & Physical

The first step in any diagnoses involves your doctor asking questions about your medical history and performing a physical exam in the office.

A history and physical examination alone are not enough to make a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, but the information gathered will help your doctor better understand your individual situation.

Lab Tests

Some tumors are associated with specific proteins in the blood, called tumor markers. For pancreatic cancer, the tumor markers are CA 19-9 and CEA, and they can be identified through blood tests.

Your blood might also be checked for a natural chemical called bilirubin. Normally, your body gets rid of bilirubin by pushing it out to the intestines, through tubes (or ducts) that run near the pancreas. Some pancreatic tumors block these ducts, which raises the body’s bilirubin levels.

Imaging Tests

These tests allow you and your doctor to see what’s going on in your pancreas and the surrounding organs. They help diagnose tumors and also monitor their growth over time. These tests include:

  • CT Scan: a series of high-resolution x-rays used to give a 3-D look at the body
  • MRI: a 3-D look at the body using radio waves and magnets
  • MRCP: an MRI that focuses on the pancreas and bile ducts
  • PET Scan: a scan specifically designed to identify cancers

Other imaging tests require the insertion of small, thin device called an endoscope, which is passed through the mouth and into your abdomen:


This involves taking a tiny piece of the suspected tumor and looking at it under a microscope to confirm the presence of cancer cells. Biopsies give the most accurate diagnosis.

Depending on the location of the tumor and your personal health history, any of the following methods may be used to collect the biopsy:

  • Fine Needle Aspiration, which involves inserting a thin needle into the pancreas. The needle can be inserted through an endoscope, or less commonly through the skin.
  • Brush Biopsy, which involves using a small brush attached to an endoscope to gather cells in one of the ducts near the pancreas.
  • Laparoscopy, which is a form of surgery in which doctors collect a piece of the tumor through small incisions in the abdomen.

Once pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, it is important to determine the correct clinical stage of the disease referring to whether, and how far, the cancer has spread in the pancreas and throughout the body. Determining the correct stage enables a team of physicians to create the best treatment plan to extend survival and maintain quality of life.  Learn more about the Stages of Pancreatic Cancer.

If you would like to set up a time for one of these tests, please  Request an Appointment or call us at 212.305.9467.


To keep learning about pancreatic cancer:
Overview | Causes | Symptoms | Genetics | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prognosis | Coping