Pancreatic Cancer Screening

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) cells develop in the pancreas.  It can grow from two kinds of cells: exocrine cells and neuroendocrine cells, such as islet cells.  The exocrine type is more common and is usually found at an advanced stage.  Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (islet cell tumors) are less common but have a better prognosis.

Facts and Figures

Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in Missouri among men and women and the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the state.  The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age.  Most people who develop pancreatic cancer are older than 45.  In fact, 90% are older than 55 and 70% are older than 65.

Screening Test

There is not currently a method for health care providers to screen asymptomatic adults for pancreatic cancer or even a standardized tool for diagnosing the disease. 

Early stage pancreatic cancer is usually found if the location of the cancer causes symptoms early or if testing for unrelated medical conditions shows signs of the disease.  Unfortunately, most pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed at stage 4.

Researchers across the world are working to develop early detection methods for pancreatic cancer.  In the meantime, those at high risk may consider research studies like surveillance programs.  These programs use regular monitoring to look for the disease with the hope of finding pancreatic cancer earlier if it does develop.

Those at high risk for pancreatic cancer may get regular imaging scans from a gastroenterologist who specializes in pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer Prevention

There is no sure way to prevent pancreatic cancer.  A person with an average risk of pancreatic cancer has about a 1% chance of developing the disease.

Generally, most pancreatic cancers (about 90%) are considered “sporadic.”  This means the genetic changes that cause pancreatic cancer develop by chance after a person is born. There is no risk of passing these genetic changes on to one’s children.

Inherited pancreatic cancers are less common (about 10%). These cancers occur when gene mutations or changes are passed within a family from one generation to the next.

Even though most pancreatic cancers are caused by random and inherited genetic mutations, there are some actions that can be taken that can help to reduce pancreatic cancer risk.

Avoid Tobacco

People who smoke are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than those who do not. 

Tobacco smoke has at least 70 chemicals that cause cancer, also known as carcinogens. Every time tobacco smoke is inhaled, those chemicals get into the bloodstream, which carries them to all parts of the body. Many of these chemicals can damage DNA, which controls how the body makes new cells and directs each kind of cell to do what it is meant to do. Damaged DNA can make cells grow differently.  These unusual cells can turn into cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Resources

The Missouri Tobacco Quitline can help current smokers quit by assigning registered participants with a trained quit coach to make a plan to stop smoking.  The Quitline can be accessed by dialing 1-800-QUIT-NOW or at

Maintain a Healthy Diet

Regularly eating foods high in fat is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Research has shown that obese and even overweight men and women have a higher risk of being diagnosed with and dying from pancreatic cancer.

Many studies have indicated that diabetes, especially when a person has had it for many years, increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. In addition, suddenly developing diabetes later in adulthood can be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer. However, it is important to remember that not all people who have diabetes or who develop diabetes as adults develop pancreatic cancer.

Maintaining a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and lower amounts of fat can reduce pancreatic cancer risk.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

Chronic, heavy alcohol use can also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, most likely by causing recurrent pancreatitis and cirrhosis.  These conditions raise the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

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