First Line Investigations

Pancreatic Cancer Action
Patient Information Booklets

What is Pancreatic cancer and how is it diagnosed?

This booklet for patients and carers describes pancreatic cancer, its causes and symptoms. It gives detailed information on the diagnostic tests used and the stages of pancreatic cancer. It includes a section on what to ask your doctor, where to go for further information and a glossary to explain many of the terms used.

First line investigations may diagnose pancreatic cancer or rule out other diseases.

Investigations into pancreatic cancer take a step-by-step approach. Patients often have vague or nonspecific symptoms that could be due to many diseases, and most people with these symptoms do not have pancreatic cancer. Investigations into pancreatic cancer begin with minimally invasive tests, such as scans and blood tests, which are easy to carry out, and more convenient for the patient.

CT Scan for Pancreatic Cancer

A CT (Computed tomography) is a detailed and specialist type of X-ray. The CT unit is linked to a sophisticated computer that builds up lots of very detailed images from inside your body. Having a CT scan is completely painless.

The scanner is shaped like a doughnut. It is about three feet wide and is open at both ends. You will be asked to lie still on a table, which slides into the scanner. If necessary, your head and neck will be supported. The scan usually lasts from 15 to 45 minutes, but it depends on the area to be examined. If you need a CT scan, your local scanning department will offer you more detailed information.

CT scan

What will happen?

Preparation for a CT scan can vary from patient to patient. The x-ray department, your doctor or a nurse will tell you what you need to do before you go for your scan.

You may be asked to drink and/or have an injection of dye, which can help highlight the areas of your body being examined. This allows the doctor to see the area being scanned more clearly. If you are allergic to iodine, fish or dyes, you need to tell the person doing the CT scan in advance, as you may not be able to have the dye, drink or injection.

You will need to let your nurse or doctor know if you:

  • Have any allergies.
  • Have asthma.
  • Have diabetes.
  • Have kidney problems.
  • Are taking any medication.
  • Are pregnant.
  • Are afraid of needles.
  • Have had any problems before with any type of x-ray or radiology examination.

It can take a few weeks for the report to be made available to your consultant. You will be given a follow-up appointment to discuss your results and future steps.

Ultrasound Scan for pancreatic cancer

An abdominal ultrasound uses sound waves to create a picture of your pancreas and the area surrounding it, including your liver.

This is normally done in the X-ray department of the hospital. This is the same procedure that is done with mothers during pregnancy when doing check-ups.

patient having an ultrasound scan

The procedure is completely painless. You will be taken into a scanning room and asked to lie on the couch next to the ultrasound machine. A clear gel will be spread onto your skin over your stomach. A small device called a transducer will be moved across your abdomen. The transducer creates sound waves that echo when they meet an organ or tumour. The computer will turn these echoes into pictures, which the radiographer or doctor will interpret, and the results will be sent to either your GP or your specialist.

Blood Tests

Blood tests can be used to identify biomarkers. Biomarkers are chemical substances that can show up in the blood of patients with some types of cancer and can be used to measure the risk of cancer or any other disease or condition.

Pancreatic Cancer Action

Unfortunately, there is currently no definitive blood test for theĀ  diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. However, there is hope that a reliable test will be readily available in the future. One such new test is the Galleri Blood Test for Cancer. It has already been tested in America and has been found to identify more than 50 cancer types, including pancreatic cancer. It is currently not available in the UK outside of a clinical trial, but further testing in a variety of patients is underway.

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Information Product № Published 08/12/2022
Last Updated 08/12/2022 Next Review Due 08/12/2025