Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis & Treatment

Diagnosing & Treating Pancreatic Cancer

Finding out you have cancer can be a frightening and overwhelming experience. That’s why Mercy’s cancer team offers more than just medical treatments for its patients. We’ll help you fully understand your condition and your options for treatment and therapy. That way, you can make thoughtful, well-informed decisions about your cancer care. The sooner you begin treatment for pancreatic cancer, the greater your chances of survival. 

How to Detect Pancreatic Cancer

Tumors in the pancreas are usually too small for doctors to feel during a physical exam, which means they might not be found until they’ve spread beyond the pancreas. Mercy gastroenterologists, pathologists and radiologists use advanced diagnostic testing methods to help detect pancreatic cancer, evaluate the extent of the disease and develop a treatment plan. 

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests may be done both before and after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis for a number of reasons such as looking for suspicious areas that might be cancer, determining how far cancer might have spread, and looking for signs of cancer returning after treatment. Common imaging procedures include:

  • CT/PET scans - CT scans are used to diagnose pancreatic cancer as well as used to determine if surgery is a good treatment option. PET scans are often used in combination with CT scans when diagnosing pancreatic cancer.
  • MRIs - special types of MRIs can be used for people with pancreatic cancer or those at high-risk
  • Cholaangeiopancreatography - this imaging test looks at pancreatic ducts & bile ducts to see if they are blocked, dilated or narrowed
  • Ultrasounds - the two most commonly used ultrasounds for pancreatic cancer are abdominal ultrasounds and endoscopic ultrasounds (EUS)

Blood Tests

There are several blood and laboratory tests that can be used to help diagnose pancreatic cancer as well as help determine the best course of treatment(s) if cancer is found.
  • Tumor markers - some of the blood tests can check for tumor-associated antigens, such as elevated CA19-9 levels
  • Liver function tests - can look at levels of bilirubin to determine whether a patient's jaundice is caused by liver disease or something else


A biopsy is generally required for a definitive diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. A biopsy is when cells or tissues are removed to be examined by a pathologist for signs of cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Options

At Mercy, we don’t just care for you, we care about you. We’ll do everything we can to help you battle your pancreatic cancer, relieve your symptoms and ease your mind. Your treatment plan will depend on several factors: what stage your cancer is in and whether it’s already spread to other areas of your body. You may need one or more types of treatment, which can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy & immunotherapy.

Pancreatic Cancer Surgery

In most cases, surgery is the best treatment for pancreatic cancer that hasn’t spread beyond the pancreas. Mercy gastrointestinal surgeons are skilled in using the latest surgical procedures and techniques, such as minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery, robotic surgery and endoscopic surgery. There are many different kinds of pancreatic cancer surgeries, but which kind you need depends on many factors. The types of pancreatic surgery include the following.


Also known as a Whipple procedure, this is the most common type of surgery for pancreatic cancer and is used to remove cancer in the head of the pancreas. Most often this surgery is done with an incision down the belly, but it’s sometimes performed laparoscopically.

Distal & Total Pancreatectomy

In a distal pancreatectomy, your Mercy surgeon removes just the tail of your pancreas, and may even remove your spleen as well. If your cancer has spread throughout the pancreas, but can still be removed, your Mercy surgeon may recommend a total pancreatectomy. In this procedure, your entire pancreas is removed, as well as your gallbladder, part of your stomach, intestines and spleen.

Stent Placement

A stent is a small tube made of metal, which is sometimes placed inside a blocked bile duct to keep it open. This is the most common approach to relieving a blocked bile duct and is usually performed during an endoscopy.  

Bypass Surgery

Another option for relieving a blocked bile duct is bypass surgery, which reroutes the flow of bile from the common bile duct into the small intestine. This procedure can be performed laparoscopically or by making a large cut in the abdomen.

Palliative Surgery

Palliative surgery for pancreatic cancer is usually performed if the cancer is too widespread to be removed completely. It can be performed using an operation known as bypass surgery to relieve symptoms or prevent complications.

Your surgeon will help you understand what to expect from your operation or treatment plan, and help you outline a unique care plan for your recovery.

Radiation Therapy for Pancreatic Cancer

If surgery isn’t an option for you, our radiation oncologists offer advanced radiation therapy treatments to precisely target cancerous tumors. Radiation therapy can be used in all stages of pancreatic cancer, including:

  • Before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy) to lower the risk of leaving cancer cells behind
  • After surgery (adjuvant therapy) to lower the chances of your cancer coming back, which is known as recursion
  • As a treatment option for patients whose health makes them unable to undergo complex pancreatic surgery
  • In combination with chemotherapy as a way to treat cancers that have spread beyond the pancreas itself

External Beam Radiation

External beam radiation is the most common type of radiation therapy used to treat pancreatic cancer. It focuses radiation from a source outside of the body onto the area of the tumor. In addition to standard external beam radiation, two forms of planning and delivering external beam radiation therapy may be used to treat pancreatic cancer:

Chemotherapy for Pancreatic Cancer

Chemotherapy (also referred to as “chemo”) uses drugs delivered directly into your veins or given by mouth to reach pancreatic cancer cells throughout the body. Chemo may be an option for some patients before, after or in lieu of surgery. It’s usually given in cycles, with periods of time built into treatment plans that allow for patients to recover fully. 

Pancreatic Cancer Resources

Mercy offers a variety of cancer patient support and resources to nourish your mind and spirit while we fight your cancer.