Only 10% of GPs say they have the tools needed to diagnose pancreatic cancer early enough for treatment to be possible, according to new polling for Pancreatic Cancer UK.

A further half of GPs (54%) say that they have some of the tools they need but could do with more. Only 3% of the 1,007 UK GPs polled by ComRes on behalf of the charity said they were very confident they could detect the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer in a patient.

The findings mark the launch of the charity's new campaign Unite-Diagnose-Save Lives to help fund the first-ever simple test for pancreatic cancer by 2024.

One in four pancreatic cancer patients die within a month of diagnosis, making it the quickest killing cancer. No screening or early detection tests exist for the disease and currently, half of all patients (53%) are diagnosed at stage 4.

Vague symptoms - such as back pain, indigestion and weight-loss - mean pancreatic cancer often goes undetected until after it has spread, leaving patients ineligible for the only potential cure - surgery to remove their tumour.

Vague pancreatic cancer symptoms

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said that the results are not surprising. GPs are acutely aware of how important it is to spot symptoms of pancreatic cancer, but it is notoriously difficult to diagnose in primary care, particularly in its early stages, simply because there are often no symptoms, at all – and when symptoms do present they are often initially very vague and could indicate many other, more common conditions.

She added: "The most appropriate intervention to address this paradox is to give primary care teams better access to the right diagnostic tools in the community - and the appropriate training to use them - and we welcome the recommendations set out in this report to do this.

"GPs are already doing a good job of diagnosing most cancers in a timely way, and it's due to this hard work and vigilance that 75% of patients found to have some form of cancer are referred after only one or two consultations, and that since 2008 the proportion of cancers diagnosed as an emergency have dropped from 23% to less than 19%."

The Government has prioritised the early diagnosis of cancer in the NHS long term plan. However, only a fifth (22%) of the GPs polled believed the target - for all patients to receive a definitive diagnosis or a ruling out of cancer within 28 days by 2020 – was currently realistic for people with pancreatic cancer.  At present, just 3% of NCRI funding allocated for early diagnosis is spent on pancreatic cancer.

GPs who suspect the disease can refer patients for ultrasound, CT, or MRI scans. However, nearly half of all pancreatic cancer patients are currently diagnosed via an emergency (such as through visiting A&E). The impact is significant: one-year survival for patients diagnosed through a GP referral is three times higher.

Diana Jupp, CEO of Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: “For too long pancreatic cancer has been able to silently go undetected, devastating families. Thousands of patients a year, still reeling from hearing the word cancer, are told it’s too late, that nothing can be done for them. That has to stop. We have to give doctors the tools they need to detect the warning signs earlier, so they can ensure those who need it, receive treatment as soon as possible.  

“Previous approaches to research funding have been too small, too infrequent and too isolated to speed up the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. So we’ve united the brightest scientists from across the country to make the progress that’s been so badly needed for decades.” 

Early Diagnosis Research Alliance

The charity has brought together over 40 researchers from across the UK for a new research project to develop the first-ever simple test for the disease by 2024. It is investing an initial £750,000 in the research.

Researchers will combine their expertise to enhance the sensitivity and accuracy of biomarkers for pancreatic cancer, collect a new biobank of samples from patients with vague symptoms, and test new tools in a clinical trial to consider how a dedicated diagnosis pathway for pancreatic cancer could be implemented in the NHS. 

Professor Steve Pereira from University College London Hospital, who is leading the Alliance, said: “For the first time we will be able to investigate a number of key, interrelated barriers to early diagnosis simultaneously, which will help us make faster progress. Within five years I would like to see a validated diagnostic pathway and one or more simple tests being implemented in the NHS. That would mean thousands more people receiving the most effective treatments, giving patients and their doctors a fighting chance of beating this dreadful disease.”