Those who are found to have cancer also generally undergo chemotherapy. They need regular screening because the chance of recurrence is high, Wolfgang said.

For now, there is no precise way to determine exactly who needs surgery, said Dr. C. Max Schmidt, an associate professor at Indiana University and director of the six-year-old Pancreatic Cyst & Cancer Early Detection Center, which sees 1,000 patients a year.

Researchers are investigating a genetic marker that would indicate a person's likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer, as is done with breast cancer. For now, Schmidt said he ranks patients based on the available tests. Those with low risk are monitored, and those with high risk are offered surgery.

He said those with certain cysts and those who have a family history of the cancer fall in the high-risk category. "We have two opportunities to cure or prevent cancer," he said of those patients.

Schmidt said he launched a new website called in an effort to reach people with symptoms or family history or who inadvertently discover a cyst so they get to a specialist. Symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Sometimes, patients have yellowing skin or eyes because the bile duct is obstructed.

There still are few clinics like Indiana's and Hopkins', though more university-linked hospitals are developing multidisciplinary programs to better assess cysts, Schmidt said.

"There has been so very little hope with this cancer, and that's the message that has been sent across the airwaves," he said. "And unfortunately, there really hasn't been well-coordinated screening across the country. But there is hope for these patients if we reach them and intervene."

Pancreatic cysts

•They are little fluid-filled brown lesions in the pancreas of up to 13 percent of people

•Most are discovered through CT scans or MRIs for another purpose and are benign

•Up to 20 percent of pancreatic cancer begins as a cyst, and unabated the disease kills 95 percent of sufferers in 5 years

•Surgery for precancerous cysts and early cancerous tumors can cure the disease

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