Few patients with pancreatic cancer have resectable disease at the time of diagnosis, and a variety of nonsurgical techniques are available to provide effective palliation of jaundice and pain. Accurate preoperative staging is essential to identify patients with unresectable disease, thereby minimizing unnecessary surgery. Currently used diagnostic tests include contrast-enhanced computerized tomography (CT), visceral angiography, endoscopic ultrasound, and laparoscopy, but their utility remains controversial. To evaluate the accuracy of these various diagnostic tests, 30 consecutive patients with histologically proven pancreatic or ampullary adenocarcinoma treated between 1992 and 1996 were evaluated. All 30 patients had contrast-enhanced CT and laparoscopy, 22 patients (73%) had visceral angiography, and 16 patients (53%) had endoscopic ultrasound. Individual and combined predictive values of resectability and unresectability as well as the sensitivities and specificities were determined for all diagnostic tests and compared with intraoperative findings. When CT, visceral angiography, and laparoscopy were combined, the predictive values of resectability and unresectability were 75 and 90 per cent, respectively, with a sensitivity of 75 per cent and a specificity of 90 per cent. Therefore, the combined use of selected diagnostic tests proved more effective than any single diagnostic test for accurately staging patients with pancreatic head and ampullary cancers and should be considered to minimize unnecessary surgery.