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African-American Patient Guide
Educational Module

How do doctors find cancer of the pancreas (diagnosis)?

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There are many tests that can be used to help doctors find cancer in the pancreas. Each test gives a different set of information. Usually, more than one test is used to give doctors a better understanding of the type of cancer a patient has.

Imaging tests

CT Scan

CT scans take detailed pictures of your organs using radio waves so that all parts can be seen. A CT scan can take pictures of your pancreas, as well as your chest and pelvis. It can see up to 90-95% of cancers of the pancreas. The pictures made by CT scans can be used to decide if a tumor can be taken out safely with surgery. The main downside to CT scans is that they are not always able to show small tumors in the places that pancreatic cancer can spread to (usually the liver and lymph nodes).


An MRI is a test that uses magnets to take pictures of different parts of the body. MRIs can find tumors in the liver that are linked to pancreatic cancer. It can also find tumors that are hard to find with CT scans.

PET Scan

PET scans use a type of sugar that is put inside the body. It can give more information about the type of tumor a person has.


Ultrasound tests use sound waves to take pictures of different parts of the body. Abdominal ultrasounds can be used to find pancreatic cancer tumors.

Ultrasounds are useful because they are sometimes able to find tumors that are too small for a CT scan to find.

There are different types of ultrasounds. Each kind of ultrasound helps doctors get pictures from the area of the body that they want to see more clearly, like the areas around the pancreas.


During a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is taken from the body. This tissue can be looked at through a microscope to help doctors make a cancer treatment plan that is best for each patient.

Blood tests

There are some proteins and other elements in the blood that can be seen in tests. People with pancreatic cancer tend to have more of these elements. Examples are CEA, CA 19-9, cell-free DNA and circulating tumor cells. Levels of CA 19-9 are usually used to track how a patient’s body responds to cancer treatment.

Written by: Jasmine Mitchell, University of California Santa Barbara

Edited by: Dale O’Brien, MD, Cancer Patients Alliance

Formatting and content by: Raewyn O’Haire, AB, Cancer Patients Alliance

Consultant: Neil Atam, University of California Santa Barbara

Top Reference

Pancreatic resection: a key component to reducing racial disparities in pancreatic adenocarcinoma
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Click Here for the ACS Journal article