When facing a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, you want an experienced team on your side. Saint Luke’s is the only cancer program in Kansas City to be nationally recognized as an NPF Pancreatic Cancer Center by the National Pancreas Foundation. Our care team includes leading experts in medical and radiation oncology, surgery, immunotherapy, and genomics. They work together to customize a treatment plan tailored to your unique needs.

Saint Luke’s Cancer Specialists provide early detection, expert diagnosis, personalized treatment options, and survivorship support to every patient. If surgery is needed, the Saint Luke’s Liver Biliary & Pancreatic Center provides expert surgical care for pancreatic cancer patients.

What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

Cancer starts when cells in the body change and grow out of control. These cells can form lumps called tumors. Cancer that starts in the cells of the pancreas is called pancreatic cancer.

Understanding the pancreas

The pancreas is a gland, an organ that makes substances the body needs. It's hidden in the left side of the belly (abdomen), behind the stomach and in front of the spine.

The pancreas has 2 main jobs:

  • It makes pancreatic enzymes . These juices help digest food. They go into the small intestine to help break down food.
  • It makes hormones . These include insulin and glucagon. They help control the amount of sugar (glucose) in the blood.

Front view of liver, gallbladder, stomach, and pancreas.

When pancreatic cancer forms

Pancreatic cancer forms when cells in the pancreas change (mutate) and grow out of control. This can change the way the pancreas works. Pancreatic cancer can spread into nearby organs, like the intestines, liver, and gallbladder. It can also spread to other parts of the body. This spread is called metastasis. The more cancer spreads, the harder it is to treat.

Treatment choices for pancreatic cancer

You and your healthcare provider will talk about treatment and make a plan that's best for you. Your treatment choices may include:

  • Surgery. This removes the cancer in the pancreas. Sometimes nearby tissues and organs are also removed.

  • Radiation therapy. This aims beams of energy at the tumor to kill cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy. This uses strong medicines to kill fast-growing cells like cancer cells.

  • Immunotherapy or biologic therapy. This uses medicines that boost the body's natural immune system to better fight the cancer.
  • Targeted therapy. This uses medicines that focus on changes found only or mostly on the cancer cells. These medicines then kill the cancer cells. But it limits damage to normal cells.

Diagnosis

Pancreatic Cancer: Diagnosis

If your healthcare provider thinks you might have pancreatic cancer, you’ll need certain exams and tests to be sure. The process starts with your healthcare provider asking you questions. You'll be asked about your health history, your symptoms, risk factors, and your family history of disease. A physical exam will be done, focusing on your belly.

Based on the findings, your provider will decide what other tests are needed.

What tests might I need?

You may need 1 or more of these tests:

  • Blood tests

  • Imaging and endoscopy tests

  • Pancreatic biopsy

Blood tests

You may have blood tests to look for signs of pancreatic cancer.

Liver function tests (LFTs)

These tests look for certain chemicals in your blood to get an idea of how well your liver is working. They can sometimes help tell if a bile duct is blocked. This might be caused by a pancreatic tumor. Still, LFTs can't tell for sure if you have pancreatic cancer because there are other causes of blocked bile ducts. But if the results of these tests are abnormal, your healthcare provider may do other tests to check for cancer.

CA19-9

CA19-9 is a tumor marker. It’s a substance that can sometimes be found in high levels in your blood if you have cancer. This test by itself can't diagnose pancreatic cancer. That's because not everyone who has pancreatic cancer has a high CA19-9 level. Plus, sometimes people have a high CA19-9 level without having pancreatic cancer. But if this test is abnormal, your healthcare provider might do other tests to look for pancreatic cancer. 

Imaging and endoscopy tests

Your healthcare provider may use imaging and endoscopy tests to look for pancreatic cancer. Imaging tests use things like X-rays and sound waves to take pictures of the inside of your body. For endoscopy tests, a thin tube (called an endoscope) is put into your body. A camera at the end of the tube lets your provider look at your organs and other tissues.

Ultrasound

An ultrasound uses sound waves to look for changes in your pancreas and bile ducts. The sound waves bounce off body parts and send back a series of signals. A computer turns these into images of your insides. This might be the first test you have because it’s easy and doesn’t use radiation. During an ultrasound, the sound waves come from a wand-like device that’s moved over the skin on your belly (abdomen) and aimed at your pancreas.

For an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS), the images of the pancreas are taken from inside your body. This makes a better picture. Medicines are used to make you sleep for this test. Then a thin, lighted tube (called an endoscope) is put down your throat, through your stomach, and into the first part of your small intestine. At the tip of the endoscope is a tiny ultrasound device. It bounces waves into nearby tissues, including the pancreas, to make images on a computer screen. During the test, if your healthcare provider sees anything of concern, a small, hollow needle may be passed through the endoscope to take out a small piece (sample) of tissue. This is called a biopsy.

CT scan

A CT scan uses X-rays taken from many angles. It creates very detailed cross-section pictures of your pancreas and nearby tissues. CT scans can often show pancreatic tumors and blocked bile ducts.

Sometimes a special type of CT scan called a pancreatic protocol CT is used. For this scan, a dye is put into your blood. Over a certain time, pictures are taken of the pancreas as the dye moves through it. This can help your healthcare team see if surgery to take out the pancreas might be an option.

PET (positron emission tomography) scan

For this test, a radioactive sugar is put into your blood through a vein in your arm or hand. Over time, the radioactive sugar collects in very active cells, like cancer cells. A special camera is then used to make pictures that show where the radioactive sugar collects. The picture from this test is not as detailed as a CT scan. It isn’t used alone to diagnose pancreatic cancer. But it can still sometimes be helpful. A PET scan may be done in combination with a CT scan (PET/CT scan). 

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

This test uses magnets and radio waves to create detailed images of your pancreas and nearby organs. While MRIs can show more detail than other imaging tests, they aren’t used as often as CT scans when looking for pancreatic cancer.

ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography)

This test is a type of X-ray used to look at the bile ducts and the pancreatic duct. Medicines are used to make you sleep. Then a long thin tube (endoscope) is put down your throat, through your stomach, and into your small intestine. A smaller tube (catheter) is slid through the scope into the common bile duct. Dye is then injected through the catheter. It goes into your bile and pancreatic ducts. The dye shows up on X-rays. This can show ducts that might be blocked or narrowed by a tumor. If your healthcare provider sees anything that doesn't look normal, a tissue sample (biopsy) might be taken out and checked for cancer.

MRCP (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography)

This test is a lot like an ERCP, but it uses an MRI instead of an endoscope. MRCP can show both the bile ducts and the pancreatic duct without the need to put a scope in them. But if your healthcare provider sees something that doesn't look normal, a biopsy can't be done during this test.

PTC (percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography)

This is another type of X-ray of the bile duct. A thin needle is put through the skin on the right side of your belly and into your liver. A dye is then injected through the needle. The dye highlights blockages in bile ducts, which can then be seen on an X-ray. If a blocked bile duct is seen, your provider may take a biopsy and check it for cancer. This test is mostly done if an ERCP can't be done.

Pancreatic biopsy

If an imaging test shows something in your pancreas that looks like it might be cancer, your healthcare provider may take out small pieces (called samples) of the changed tissue. This is called a biopsy.

A biopsy is usually the only way to be sure that a person has pancreatic cancer. A doctor who specializes in looking at cells, called a pathologist, looks at the samples under a microscope. Tests are done to see if they contain cancer. There are different types of biopsies.

Percutaneous (though the skin) needle biopsy

For this test, a thin, hollow needle is put through your skin and into the pancreatic tumor to get a sample of it. A CT scan or ultrasound of the pancreas is usually used to help your healthcare provider guide the needle into the tumor. 

Endoscopic biopsy

During procedures such as endoscopic ultrasound or ERCP, your healthcare provider may pass long, thin tools down the scope to take samples of areas that don't look normal. This might be done with a thin, hollow needle or a tiny brush.

Laparoscopic biopsy

For this test, your surgeon makes a small cut (incision) in your skin over your belly. A thin tube with a light and a tiny video camera on the end is put into this cut. This lets your provider see your pancreas and nearby areas. Other small cuts may be made to put in other tools to remove cells for testing.

Getting your test results

When your healthcare provider has the results of your tests, they'll contact you. Ask how you can expect to find out your biopsy results. Will it be a phone call or do you need to make an appointment?

Your provider will talk with you about other tests you may need if pancreatic cancer is found. Make sure you understand the results and what your next steps should be.

Treatment Choices

Pancreatic Cancer: Treatment Choices

Various types of treatment can be used for pancreatic cancer. Which may work best for you? It depends on a number of factors. These include the size, location, and stage of your cancer. Factors also include your age, overall health, and what side effects you’ll find acceptable.

Learning about your treatment options

You may have questions and concerns about your treatment options. You may also want to know how you’ll feel and function after treatment, and if you’ll have to change your normal activities.

Your healthcare provider is the best person to answer your questions. They can tell you what your treatment choices are, how successful they’re expected to be, and what the risks and side effects are. Your healthcare provider may suggest a specific treatment. Or they may offer more than 1, and ask you to decide which you’d like to use. It can be hard to make this decision. It's important to take the time you need to make the best decision.

Deciding on the best plan may take some time. Talk with your healthcare provider about how much time you can take to explore your options. You may want to get another opinion before deciding on your treatment plan. You also may want to include your family and friends in this process.

Understanding the goals of treatment for pancreatic cancer

For some pancreatic cancers, the goal of treatment is to cure the cancer. If cure isn’t possible, treatment may be used to shrink the cancer or keep it under control for as long as possible. Treatment can also improve your quality of life by helping to control the symptoms of the disease. The goals of treatment can be 1 or more of these things:

  • Remove or destroy the cancer in your pancreas

  • Remove or destroy tumors in other parts of your body

  • Stop or slow the growth or spread of pancreatic cancer cells

  • Prevent or delay the cancer from coming back

  • Ease symptoms caused by the cancer. These can include pain or pressure on your organs.

Types of treatment for pancreatic cancer

Many types of treatment can be used for pancreatic cancer. Different combinations of treatment may be used. These depend on a number of factors, such as: 

  • The size of the cancer and where it is

  • The stage (extent) of the cancer

  • Your age and overall health

  • Your personal concerns and preferences

Surgery

This is often the preferred treatment for early stage pancreatic cancer if it can be done. This is because it may cure the cancer. But in most cases, pancreatic cancer has spread too far to be removed completely. If the cancer can’t be removed, your healthcare provider might still suggest a less extensive surgery to ease symptoms.

Radiation therapy

This treatment is often used with chemotherapy (chemo), either before or after surgery. Radiation and chemo before surgery can help shrink a tumor and make it easier to take out. After surgery, radiation and chemo can be used to try to kill any cancer cells that are left. Radiation may also be used as part of the main treatment in people who can't have surgery. Or it may be used to help ease symptoms in people with advanced cancer.  

Chemotherapy and targeted therapy

For pancreatic cancer, chemo may be used before or after surgery (often with radiation). Or it may be the main treatment for people who can't have surgery. Targeted therapy medicines work differently from standard chemo medicines. They may be used along with chemo in some cases.

Supportive care

Your healthcare provider may suggest treatments that help ease your symptoms, but don’t treat the cancer. For instance, you may need treatment to help with nausea or pain. These can be used along with other treatments. Your provider may suggest you get only supportive care if they believe that the available cancer treatments are more likely to do you more harm than good.

Clinical trials for new treatments

Researchers are always looking for new and better ways to treat pancreatic cancer. These new methods are tested in clinical trials. Talk with your healthcare provider to find out if there are any clinical trials you should consider.

Talking with your healthcare provider

At first, thinking about treatment options may seem overwhelming. Talk with your healthcare team and loved ones. Make a list of questions. Consider the benefits and possible side effects of each option. Talk about your concerns with your healthcare provider before making a decision.

Pancreatic Cancer Statistics

Pancreatic Cancer: Statistics

What are statistics?

Some people use numbers called statistics to figure out their chances of getting cancer. Or they use them to try to figure out their chances of dying from cancer. Because no 2 people are alike, statistics can’t be used to predict what will happen to 1 person. The statistics below describe large groups of people. They do not take into account a person's own risk factors, such as family history, behaviors, or cancer screenings. If you have questions, talk with your healthcare provider.

What are the statistics for pancreatic cancer?

Here are some statistics about pancreatic cancer:

  • About 55,440 new cases of this cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2018.

  • About 44,330 people will die of pancreatic cancer in 2018.

The average person's risk of getting this cancer in their lifetime is about 1 in 65 for women and 1 in 63 for men. Your chance of getting this cancer may be higher or lower. This depends on your risk factors.

Source: American Cancer Society

Clinical Trials

A Phase III Study of BBI-608 plus nab-Paclitaxel with Gemcitabine in Adult Patients with Metastatic Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma

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Randomized Phase II Study of Perioperative mFOLFIRINOX Versus Gemcitabine/Nab-Paclitaxel as Therapy for Resectable Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma

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A Phase IB/II Randomized Study of Modified FOLFIRINOX + Pegylated Recombinant Human Hyaluronidase (PEGPH20) Versus Modified FOLFIRINOX Alone in Patients with Good Performance Status Metastatic Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma

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A Phase II-R and a Phase III Trial Evaluating Both Erlotinib (Ph II-R) and Chemoradiation (Ph III) as Adjuvant Treatment for Patients with Resected Head of Pancreas Adenocarcinoma

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A Phase II Study of MLN0128 (TAK-228) in Rapalog-Resistant Advanced Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors (PNET)

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Preoperative Extended Chemotherapy vs. Chemotherapy Plus Hypofractionated Radiation Therapy for Borderline Resectable Adenocarcinoma of the Head of the Pancreas

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News

Oct. 6, 2020
KMBC: Ruth Bader Ginsburg case highlights importance of early diagnosis for pancreatic cancer
Justice Ginsburg's 11-year survival is an example of the importance of early diagnosis. KMBC talked to one local man who says he's living proof of that.
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May. 1, 2018
Saint Luke’s Cancer Institute Awarded National Pancreatic Cancer Center Designation
Saint Luke's Cancer Institute is one of only 36 centers in the nation to achieve this designation.
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Jan. 24, 2018
MEDIA COVERAGE: Saint Luke's Announces Center for Precision Oncology
Our precision oncology experts treat your tumor’s mutation, not just your cancer’s location. It’s the only program within 450 miles that offers this level of expertise in clinical oncology, tumor genomics, and computational biology.

Providers

Lee S Cummings, MD

Surgery (General), Transplant Surgery

Timothy J Pluard, MD

Oncology / Hematology

Marc T Roth, MD

Oncology / Hematology

Jacob P Smeltzer, MD

Oncology / Hematology

Addison R Tolentino, MD

Oncology / Hematology

Saint Luke’s Cancer Institute

Saint Luke's provides comprehensive cancer care, from expert diagnosis and personalized treatment plans to survivorship support.