Pancreatic Cystic Lesions and Malignancy: Assessment, Guidelines, and the Field Defect

Radiographics. 2022 Jan-Feb;42(1):87-105. doi: 10.1148/rg.210056. Epub 2021 Dec 2.


The widespread use of high-spatial-resolution cross-sectional imaging has led to an increase in detection of incidental pancreatic cystic lesions. These lesions are a diverse group, ranging from indolent and premalignant lesions to invasive cancers. The diagnosis of several of these lesions can be suggested on the basis of their imaging appearance, while many other lesions require follow-up imaging and/or aspiration. The smaller cystic lesions, often branch-duct intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms, have overlapping imaging characteristics that make diagnostic assessment of the natural history and malignancy risk confusing. Expert panels have developed societal guidelines, based on a consensus, for surveillance of these lesions. However, these guidelines are often inconsistent and are constantly evolving as additional scientific data are accumulated. Identification of features associated with increased risk of malignancy is important for proper management. The concept of field defect, whereby pancreatic adenocarcinoma develops at a site different from the site of the pancreatic cyst, adds to the complexity of screening guidelines. As a result of the differences in guidelines, key stakeholders (eg, radiologists, gastroenterologists, and surgeons) must review and come to a consensus regarding which guideline, or combination of guidelines, to follow at their individual institutions. Standardized reporting and macros are helpful for ensuring the uniformity of interpretations. Radiologists play a critical role in the detection and characterization of pancreatic cystic lesions, in the follow-up recommendations for these lesions, and in the detection of associated cancer. An invited commentary by Zaheer is available online. Online supplemental material is available for this article. ©RSNA, 2021.

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma* / pathology
  • Humans
  • Pancreas
  • Pancreatic Cyst* / diagnostic imaging
  • Pancreatic Cyst* / pathology
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms* / diagnostic imaging
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms* / pathology