Pancreatic cancer initially develops in the cells that make up the pancreas, or the organ responsible for the production of digestive enzymes and secretion of blood sugar managing hormones. Because of its obscure location in the body, tumors in the pancreas are hard to detect in early stages. Routine screening for pancreatic cancer is only recommended at this time for individuals considered high risk. Numerous diagnostic tests can be performed on a patient who has symptoms indicative of pancreatic cancer to determine if it is the underlying cause. When pancreatic cancer is identified, more advanced tests can be used to determine the exact location, severity, extent, and prognosis of the cancer. Because pancreatic cancer is known to spread easily, many diagnostic tests are not only focused on the abdominal area where an individual's pancreas is located but the rest of the body as well.
When a patient is suspected to have pancreatic cancer, their physician may be able to use blood tests to aid in making a diagnosis. A metabolic panel that includes bilirubin levels can be run on a patient's blood to check for elevated amounts of bilirubin in circulation. A tumor that begins in the pancreas can wrap around the organ and around the ducts that come from the organ, resulting in a duct obstruction. When these ducts become obstructed, bilirubin and other substances intended to drain into the small intestine begin to build up and enter circulation instead of into the intestine. Other blood tests can check for the presence of certain substances produced at higher levels by malignant tumors referred to as tumor markers. Some individuals with pancreatic cancer will have a high level of a tumor marker called carbohydrate antigen 19-9 or CA-19-9. Imbalances of certain hormones, markers of inflammation, and high blood sugar may also be detected in the blood of some patients as a result of their pancreatic cancer.