Dr. Minter: Unfortunately, some of the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer are rather insidious and usually quite vague, which can make it hard to detect early on. One of the keys to battling this disease is to become attuned to changes within the body. That means looking out for symptoms that affect the whole body along with those that affect just the gastrointestinal (GI) system. General symptoms include a new onset of vague upper abdominal or middle back pain, and unexplained weight loss. These general symptoms could be caused by any number of things and are usually not due to pancreatic cancer, but they do warrant prompt attention. Common GI-specific symptoms are jaundice, dark urine, and light-colored stools.
Are there ways to detect pancreatic cancer early?
Dr. Minter: Regrettably, there is no simple blood test that can detect pancreatic cancer. Developing such a test is a huge area of focus of our research at UT Southwestern. Probably the best early warning sign that we can point to is a new onset of diabetes, particularly in a non-obese patient, and especially one in his or her 50s or older. Additionally, an acute worsening of existing diabetes can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer and merits further evaluation. A gastro-specific symptom that warrants physician workup is unexplained pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that occurs when food-digesting enzymes can’t get from the pancreas to the intestine due to blockage and instead begin digesting the pancreas itself. Pancreatitis is typically very painful, so it’s not a subtle condition that one would not notice.
How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?
Dr. Minter: Imaging is the best tool for diagnosing pancreatic cancer, but it’s also useful for helping to prevent it. People get imaging tests so often these days for appendicitis, kidney stones, etc. As a proactive measure, at UT Southwestern we screen every patient for the presence of a pancreatic cyst as part of routine abdominal imaging. If a pancreatic cyst is found, the patient is contacted by our pancreatic cancer prevention clinic. His or her case is reviewed by a multidisciplinary team that includes gastroenterologists who specialize in the pancreas, as well as a cancer genetics team, which reviews the patient’s family history. We then put the patient into a surveillance program if it’s determined he or she has an at-risk cyst. It should be noted that pancreatic cysts are quite prevalent. In fact, they appear in about 40 percent of patients over the age of 65, although not all pancreatic cysts are precancerous. By putting patients who are at risk into a surveillance program, we can watch for small changes over time and hopefully take action before a cyst develops into cancer.
Rebecca Minter, M.D., is an internationally recognized surgeon who specializes in the treatment of diseases and conditions of the pancreas, including pancreatic cancer, pancreatic cysts, and pancreatitis. She is the Surgical Director of both the UT Southwestern Multidisciplinary Pancreatic Cancer and Pancreatic Cancer Prevention programs.