• panckreatic_cancer_slide
    Read the story of ASCP Patient Champion Marissa and learn about the role
    of laboratory testing in the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer.


Pancreatic cancer is a malignant growth that starts in the pancreas when the cells grow and divide abnormally. The pancreas is a gland that produces hormones that help control blood sugar levels and makes enzymes that help with the digestion of food. It is located between the spine and the stomach. Pancreatic cancer can start developing in exocrine cells or neuroendocrine cells such as islet cells. Cancers that develop in the exocrine cells, such as pancreatic adenocarcinoma, are the most common type of pancreatic cancer. The symptoms of pancreatic cancer include fatigue, dark-colored urine, itchy skin, abdominal pain that travels to your back, jaundice (a condition where the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow) and loss of appetite. Some risk factors for pancreatic cancer include smoking, BRCA2 gene mutation, chronic inflammation of the pancreas and a family history of pancreatic cancer.



Educational Materials: Pancreatic Cancer

Español: Cancer de pancreas



*Image from Wikimedia commons

Normal pancreatic glands (left) at the interface with a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas (right). Note that the collection of tumor cells is monomorphic (all look the same) while the normal gland is heterogeneous (all look different).


“The results you wait for with bated breath, those are provided by the laboratory.”


In October 2019, Marissa found herself curled in a fetal position in tears after dinner. With her husband and kids in tow, she went to the closest emergency room where she anticipated surgery to remove her gallbladder. Instead, Marissa was sent for a CT scan by the ultrasound technician, which was followed by a series of lab tests. At the age of 38, Marissa was diagnosed with a Grade 1 Pancreatic Neuroendocrine tumor.

With 18 years of experience as a registered nurse, Marissa took a clinical approach to tackling her cancer diagnosis, carefully reviewing her lab results and weighing the treatment options: surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Together with her health care team, Marissa decided to have a Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy) to remove the golf ball sized tumor. Afterwards, Marissa experienced and overcame a number of complications including a pancreatic leak, GI bleed, and bowel anatomic leak. These complications were promptly diagnosed by the lab personnel and the tests helped guide her plan of care.

Without the lab, it would not have been possible to treat her cancer effectively. Pathologists and laboratory professionals did not only diagnose and grade her cancer, they also monitored the pancreatic fluid leak after surgery, and continue to measure her tumor markers to make sure the cancer does not return.

Now, Marissa is cancer free and works reduced hours at the hospital because she decided to be more present and spend time with family. “I reevaluated my life and made some changes aligned with my values and goals”, says Marissa.

“Without the lab, diagnosis and treatments would be impossible. The information the lab provides guides your plan of care.”

Rana's Story

“I want other patients and caregivers to know the lengths to which lab goes to ensure lab results are accurate and precise. I want to teach patients and caregivers about the people that are running those lab tests”


“I was devastated. I couldn't breathe when they called and told me there was a mass on my pancreas.”

In early 2020, Rana started having frequent heartburn. She was in the middle of relocating her parents and working as a program director for a Medical Laboratory Technician program, so she wrote it off to stress. Then, her skin started to constantly itch, but she simply slathered on another layer of lotion and continued with her life. Slowly though, symptoms became undeniable – her urine was dark, her stool looked like clay, the heartburn wouldn’t go away, and she was exhausted all the time.

Rana scheduled an appointment with her primary care physician, who gave her medicine for heartburn and steroids to soothe her skin. She also drew Rana’s blood to be analyzed for a Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP). When the results came back, it was clear something was very wrong.

“A simple, ordinary, lab test caused my doctor to immediately order a CT scan for the following day where the mass on my pancreas was found. My type of pancreatic cancer has a 5-year survival rate of less than 5%. It's hard not to "what if" myself. I often think, what if my doctor had not ordered that lab test?”

After the mass was found, Rana was immediately sent to the emergency room. Rana received a round of chemotherapy to prepare for a Whipple procedure, which is a complex surgery in which the head of the pancreas is removed, as well as the gallbladder, the bile duct, and the first part of the small intestine. For most pancreatic cancers, the Whipple is the only known cure. Rana’s surgery was successful—the laboratory team (i.e., pathologists and laboratory professionals) analyzed the tumor and it showed cleaned margins, meaning they had successfully removed the cancer from her pancreas, Though her pathology report showed that the tumor was fully removed, Rana received a second round of chemotherapy to ensure that the cancer was gone.

Rana still sees her oncologist on a regular basis and has lab tests done every three months to make sure the rest of her pancreas is functioning as it should. So far, she is doing well and is expected to make a full recovery. She is still working, teaching the next generation of Medical Lab Scientists.