Pancreatic Cancer: Looking for Hope

Pancriatic-CancerDifficulty in detecting pancreatic cancer makes effective treatment difficult, but not impossible.

Located behind your stomach, the pancreas is responsible for producing exocrine and endocrine, which regulate blood sugar and break down food so the body can process the nutrients.

Pancreatic cancer is the most lethal form of cancer: the National Cancer Institute says there will be 48,960 diagnoses of pancreatic cancer in the U.S. in 2015, and 40,560 deaths. Although that means pancreatic cancer makes up only 3 percent of new cancer diagnoses, it results in 6.9 percent of all cancer deaths.

Even when detected in its earliest stage, the five-year survival rate is only 14 percent. However, the survival rate for stage IV pancreatic cancer is only 1 percent, so the importance of detecting the disease as early as possible is obvious.

Physicians rarely detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages in part because many of the early symptoms are too common to immediately suspect cancer. These symptoms can include abdominal and back pain, fatigue, jaundice, and weight loss. Another reason pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect is that the organ’s location in the body makes it impossible to feel potential tumors, which sometimes help doctors and patients detect other cancers such as breast or testicular cancer.

People with a family history of pancreatic cancer may be screened using an endoscopic ultrasound, though physicians and pancreatic cancer organizations don’t recommend this test for those without high risk factors for the disease. In some cases, genetic testing can identify small changes to certain genes that may signal a need for testing.

Recent Advances in Care
Currently, surgery is the only option for curing pancreatic cancer, but traditional surgery is long and requires a large incision. New laparoscopic surgical techniques for pancreatic cancer may be appropriate for some patients and offer a faster, more comfortable recovery. Although pancreatic cancer is often resistant to chemotherapy, new combinations of drugs and using chemotherapy in conjunction with radiation therapy, may also provide more flexible treatment options in the near future.

Research into earlier detection: Urine testing and blood testing may soon make it possible to detect pancreatic cancer accurately and more easily.

Palliative care: a new drug treatment has shown promise in extending the lifespan of patients whose pancreatic cancer is otherwise untreatable. 

Click here to read more from the Winter 2015 StayHealthy Issue!