Many more patients would survive pancreatic cancer if doctors screened those families at highest risk and operated more often, say researchers.
Tests can help cut death rates
Almost all the 7,000 people who get pancreatic cancer annually in the UK die, partly because symptoms are spotted too late.
But experts from Liverpool University told a cancer conference in Birmingham the disease was not incurable.
Targeted screening and more surgery could boost survival more than 10-fold.
Survival from pancreatic cancer is notoriously poor - only 2% of patients are still alive five years after diagnosis.
Surgery with chemotherapy can increase the five-year survival chance to 30%.
But it is difficult to tell who is at risk because often a person will not have symptoms until the cancer has spread.
In about 10% of cases, genes that are passed down through family generations are to blame.
Having three blood relatives affected by pancreatic cancer can raise a person's lifetime risk of developing the disease to more than one in two.
Professor John Neoptolemous and his team in Liverpool have been looking at ways to these high risk individuals to catch it early.
As part of a European study called EUROPAC (European Registry of Hereditary Pancreas And Familial Pancreatic Cancer), they have begun to work out which tests are best for early diagnosis.
Combining three existing tests of the juices produced by the pancreas can spot individuals with over a 50% chance of getting the cancer, their work shows.
These very high risk individuals could then have more screening, such as a small camera into the body and medical scans to check for any growth that could be removed with surgery.
By doing this, along with increasing the number of operations that are carried out on those patients who present with symptoms of pancreatic cancer, Professor Neoptolemous believes 897 extra lives would be saved over five years.
Surgery rates low
He told the National Cancer Research Institute meeting: "The proportion of pancreatic cancer patients who have surgery in the UK is very low, at around 4%.
"But we can raise this figure by diagnosing the condition earlier in more patients."
Assuming that surgery and chemotherapy can boost five-year survival to 30%, targeted screening and doing 10% more operations than the current level would mean 978 people would survive five years - a 12-fold increase on the 81 currently - he said.
Recent work suggests that hereditary pancreatic cancer develops at an increasingly younger age as it is passed down generations. This means people could begin to die in their 50s rather than their 70s from the disease.
John, 59 and from Cambridge, has already lost his father, uncle and sister to the disease.
He is currently free of the disease but is enrolled on the EUROPAC study and is having regular check-ups because he too could develop a tumour.
"It's quite frightening.
"When you see the curve that perhaps it's occurring at an earlier age, perhaps it is going to hit when you are 50 or 60, which I nearly am now.
"I have two sons. They could be at risk."
He said he and his family were very keen to support the research, not only to help themselves, but to help others at risk of pancreatic cancer.
Professor Nick Lemoine, director of the Cancer Research UK Clinical Centre at Barts and The London, said: "It is encouraging that some people who have inherited a higher risk of getting the disease are getting the opportunity to be monitored.
"If they do develop pancreatic cancer, they will have a higher chance of being diagnosed early and surviving the disease.
"It's not a disease we can do nothing about."