What is the role of lab testing in the workup 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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The laboratory findings in patients with pancreatic cancer are usually nonspecific. As with many chronic diseases, a mild normochromic anemia may be present.

Thrombocytosis is also sometimes observed in patients with cancer.

Patients presenting with obstructive jaundice show significant elevations in bilirubin (conjugated and total), alkaline phosphatase, gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase, and to a lesser extent, aspartate aminotransferase and alanine aminotransferase.

Serum amylase and/or lipase levels are elevated in less than half of patients with resectable pancreatic cancers and are elevated in only one quarter of patients with unresectable tumors. However, about 5% of patients with pancreatic cancer present initially with acute pancreatitis, in which case amylase and lipase would be uniformly elevated. Thus, pancreatic cancer should be in the differential diagnosis of an elderly patient presenting for the first time with acute pancreatitis without any known precipitating factors.

Liver metastases alone are not associated with clinical jaundice but may result in relatively low-grade elevations of serum alkaline phosphatase and transaminase levels.

Patients with advanced pancreatic cancers and weight loss may also have general laboratory evidence of malnutrition (eg, low serum albumin or cholesterol level).

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