Research to help diagnose pancreatic cancer early

With about 4,200 Australians diagnosed each year with pancreatic cancer, QIMR Berghofer is conducting research to help diagnose pancreatic cancer earlier.

Pancreatic cancer is the eighth most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, accounting for approximately three per cent of all new cancer diagnoses.

“Survival is extremely poor, with only 12 per cent of people living for five years after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. As a consequence pancreatic cancer is the third most common cause of cancer death,” Professor Rachel Neale said.

“The only way to cure pancreatic cancer is to remove the tumour surgically. However, about 80 per cent of people are diagnosed when surgery is not possible because the tumour has spread to nearby blood vessels or to other organs,” she said.

“Pancreatic cancer occurs too rarely to justify screening everybody in the population, like we do for breast or bowel cancer, so most patients are diagnosed after they develop symptoms and go to their doctor.

“Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are very non-specific; that is, they can also be caused by other, generally much less serious, conditions. Because of this, many patients take a long time to receive their diagnosis, and this can be distressing for them and their families,” Professor Neale said.

Professor Neale’s team is driving research to help diagnose pancreatic cancer earlier.

Professor Neale and Dr Bridie Thompson collaborated with doctors from around Australia to develop guidance to help general practitioners (GPs) decide which patients should have their pancreas investigated, based on combinations of symptoms and risk factors.

“Most patients for example who present with abdominal pain will have a condition such as irritable bowel disease or reflux. But if the patient has other issues, such as a history of smoking or a family history of pancreatic cancer, it may be appropriate to order tests of the pancreas,” Dr Thompson said.

The guidance has been published in the journal Pancreatology, and is available on the QIMR Berghofer website.

Researchers are now conducting a study, the Pathways Study, to understand more about patient journeys to diagnosis and the impact of delays in diagnosis. They also aim to determine how many patients would have been diagnosed earlier if the GP had followed the new advice.

Patients who take part in the Pathways Study are given the opportunity to tell their story to our research nurse, helping to reduce delays in diagnosis for future patients.

QIMR Berghofer is also establishing a national dataset, the Panlink dataset, which will be used to identify if there are groups of the population for whom routine screening would be beneficial and cost-effective.

Pharmaceutical company Viatris funded the development of the GP guidance. Viatris and Pankind (The Australian Pancreatic Cancer Foundation) are funding the Pathways and Panlink studies.

Know your symptoms

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be mistaken for other conditions. Below are some of the symptoms, which in combination, should be checked by your physician.

  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite/nausea/unintended weight loss
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and whites of eyes)
  • New diagnosis of diabetes/existing diabetes that’s becoming more difficult to control

Hi, I’m Judi Adams. I am one of the 4,200 plus people diagnosed each year with pancreatic cancer. Possibly the very first symptom was pain in my lower back. I went to my GP and I was just really lucky that my cancer was found early.

I’ve taken part in the Pathways Study to assist with the collective lived experience that researchers can gain from talking to people like myself who’ve had a diagnosis.

It’s only through those lived experiences that researchers can get a snapshot of what it looks like for each individual, the common denominators and warning signs to look out for.

Pathway Study


Patients often experience delays in diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. The Pathways Study aims to understand patients’ journey to diagnosis so we can develop ways to help patients be diagnosed quickly in the future.

If you have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the past six months you may be eligible to take part in Pathways.

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