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Screening for pancreatic cancer

What is cancer screening?

Cancer screening means testing for early signs of cancer in people who don’t have any symptoms. The aim is to help to pick up cancers early, which means treatment may be more successful and the chances of surviving cancer may be better. There is no NHS screening programme for pancreatic cancer in the UK. But people who have a strong family history of pancreatic cancer might be able to have screening through the European Registry of Hereditary Pancreatitis and Familial Pancreatic Cancer (EUROPAC) research study.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of screening?

All cancer screening programmes have advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages

  • Screening may find changes in the body early, before they develop into cancer.
  • Screening can help to diagnose cancer early before any symptoms appear, when treatment may be more successful.
  • Screening can help people make more informed decisions about their health.

Disadvantages

  • Sometimes screening tests can miss a problem – this is called a false negative. This may mean people are wrongly reassured and ignore symptoms in the future.
  • Screening tests may sometimes suggest someone has cancer when they don’t. This is known as a false positive. This can cause anxiety and may mean that people have more unnecessary tests or treatment.
  • If your screening test shows that you don’t have a disease, this doesn’t mean that you won’t develop it in the future.

What NHS cancer screening programmes are there in the UK?

In the UK, the NHS currently runs screening programmes for breast, cervical and bowel cancer.

There is screening for these cancers because they meet certain conditions.

  • They are relatively common cancers, so affect large numbers of people.
  • There are simple, safe and accurate screening tests for these cancers.
  • There are effective treatments for these cancers, and early treatment is more likely to be successful.
  • The benefits of these screening programmes are greater than the possible disadvantages.

Why is there no NHS screening programme for pancreatic cancer?

At the moment there is no programme in the UK to screen the general population for pancreatic cancer. The main reason is that there isn’t a screening test for pancreatic cancer that is reliable and accurate enough so that it:

  • finds a large number of pancreatic cancers at an early stage, but  
  • doesn’t show that someone has pancreatic cancer when they don’t (a false positive).

Screening for people with a family history of pancreatic cancer

Some people may have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer because they have a strong family history of it. Screening may be available for these people through the EUROPAC secondary screening study. This study is trying to find out the best way to screen for pancreatic cancer in people with a family history. Read more about the EUROPAC study.

The NICE guidelines have also recommended that some people with a family history of pancreatic cancer should be offered scans to check for pancreatic cancer. Read more about family history of pancreatic cancer and the NICE guidelines.

What should I do if I think I'm at a higher risk?

If you think you might have a family history of pancreatic cancer speak to your GP. You can also speak to our Specialist Nurses with any questions about your risk of pancreatic cancer or screening. If you have any of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer, speak to your GP.

Read more about the family history of pancreatic cancer

Find out about the risk factors of pancreatic cancer

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Read about how pancreatic cancer is diagnosed

Information Standard

Updated August 2018

To be reviewed August 2021