The greatest challenge with pancreatic cancer is that the only chance of a cure is with early diagnosis and surgery…yet for 90% of people with this deadly disease, when symptoms occur, it’s too late for surgery to help.

Now scientists are finding that a specific pancreatic condition could serve as an early warning system—acute pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. It can be an acute (short-lived) episode, which depending on the cause can turn into a long-term, chronic disease. With acute pancreatitis, symptoms start suddenly and include abdominal and back pain, nausea, vomiting and fever.

Doctors have known that pancreatitis increases the risk for pancreatic cancer, but the new research suggests that acute pancreatitis could be the first sign of it…and presents an opportunity to proactively test for it.

The study: Swedish researchers followed about 50,000 patients newly diagnosed with acute pancreatitis. They matched them with a group of close to 140,000 people free of pancreatitis and followed them over an average period of five years. During this time, there were 769 cases of pancreatic cancer…and 70% of the cases were in the people who had had acute pancreatitis.

Even more important was the finding that the risk for pancreatic cancer was highest in the first two months after acute pancreatitis. In fact, the risk was close to 200 times higher. The researchers believe that this very high likelihood suggests that pancreatic cancer may already be present during the first episode of acute pancreatitis.

It’s important to note that most cases of acute pancreatitis are caused by either gallstones or heavy use of alcohol, and that the pancreatic cancer risk is associated with drinking, not gallstones. Alcohol abuse is a shared risk factor for pancreatic cancer and pancreatitis (so is smoking).

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, talk to your doctor about doing an imaging study to look for pancreatic cancer, preferably an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). EUS is done by placing a flexible scope down the throat and through the stomach. Sound waves from the tip of the scope are used to form images of the pancreas. EUS is close to 100% accurate at finding pancreatic cancers smaller than 25 millimeters. Removing a tumor at this stage gives the best chance for long-term survival. Talk to your doctor about any need for future imaging tests if the results of the first one are negative.

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer during an episode of acute pancreatitis could lead to successful surgery. Missing an early diagnosis could mean missing the chance for surgical treatment…and survival.