What is the role of lab testing in the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer?

Updated: Oct 02, 2020
  • Author: Tomislav Dragovich, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: N Joseph Espat, MD, MS, FACS  more...
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Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to diagnose in its early stages. [1]


The laboratory findings in patients with pancreatic cancer are usually nonspecific. Patients with advanced pancreatic cancers and weight loss may have general laboratory evidence of malnutrition (eg, low serum albumin or cholesterol level).

Potentially useful tests in patients with suspected pancreatic cancer include the following:

  • CBC count

  • Hepatobiliary tests: Patients with obstructive jaundice show significant elevations in bilirubin (conjugated and total), ALP, GGT, and, to a lesser extent, AST and ALT

  • Serum amylase and/or lipase levels: Elevated in less than 50% of patients with resectable pancreatic cancers and in only 25% of patients with unresectable tumors

  • Tumor markers such as CA 19-9 antigen and CEA: 75-85% have elevated CA 19-9 levels; 40-45% have elevated CEA levels

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