Pancreatic Cancer Among Most Neglected Diseases

If you’ve been following recent celebrity headlines, you know that actor Patrick Swayze was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While viewed as one of the most serious and deadliest forms of cancer, for Swayze, the prognosis is pretty good.

If you’ve been following recent celebrity headlines, you know that actor Patrick Swayze was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While viewed as one of the most serious and deadliest forms of cancer, for Swayze, the prognosis is pretty good. Unfortunately, history has shown us that this is hardly the norm.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates there will be 37,680 new cases of pancreatic cancer in 2008 with 34,290 deaths in the U.S.; only five percent of patients live more than five years after being diagnosed. “Nationally, only about 20 percent of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed while the tumor is confined entirely within the pancreas."

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) is one institution working to improve pancreatic cancer’s detection and prevention. The facility carefully evaluates the extent of disease through advanced computed tomographic (CT) scanning and laparoscopy—a minimally invasive procedure. This evaluation allows for precise determination of the extent of the disease, facilitating appropriate, individualized therapy and avoiding unnecessarily extensive surgery. Patients are then treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or immunotherapy, alone or in combination.

Additionally, MSKCC docs have developed a contrast-enhanced, thin-cut, dynamic technique for scanning the pancreas that is highly accurate and easy to repeat. The technique reduces the amount of radiation required while improving diagnostic accuracy to levels approaching those of invasive procedures (such as angiography). “Traditionally, patients with pancreatic cancer have also needed exploratory surgery to determine whether surgical removal would be appropriate for their disease. But because pancreatic cancer is especially aggressive, many patients were found to have had advanced disease that would not benefit from surgical treatment. Patients would need to recover for six weeks after this exploratory surgery before beginning chemotherapy—an alternative treatment to surgery.”

MayoClinic provides a list of helpful signs and symptoms to aid in the early detection of pancreatic cancer:

  • Upper abdominal pain that may radiate to your middle or upper back. Pain is a common symptom of advanced pancreatic cancer. Abdominal pain occurs when a tumor presses on surrounding organs and nerves. Pain may be constant or intermittent and is often worse after you eat or when you lie down. Because many conditions other than cancer can cause abdominal pain, be sure to discuss your symptoms carefully with your doctor.
  • Loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss. Unintended weight loss is a common sign of pancreatic cancer. Weight loss occurs in most types of cancer because cancerous (malignant) cells deprive healthy cells of nutrients, and this is especially true in pancreatic cancer.
  • Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice). About half of people with pancreatic cancer develop jaundice, which occurs when bilirubin, a breakdown product of worn-out blood cells, accumulates in your blood. Normally, bilirubin is eliminated in bile, a fluid produced in your liver. But if a pancreatic tumor blocks the flow of bile, excess pigment from bilirubin may turn your skin and the whites of your eyes yellow. In addition, your urine may be dark brown and your stools white or clay-colored. Although jaundice is a common sign of pancreatic cancer, it's more likely to result from other conditions, such as gallstones or hepatitis.
  • Itching. In the later stages of pancreatic cancer, you may develop severe itching when high levels of bile acids, another component of bile, accumulate in your skin.
  • Nausea and vomiting. In advanced cases of pancreatic cancer, the tumor may block a portion of your digestive tract, usually the upper portion of your small intestine (duodenum), causing nausea and vomiting.
  • Digestive problems. When cancer prevents pancreatic enzymes from being released into your intestine, you're likely to have a hard time digesting foods—especially those high in fat. Eventually, this may lead to significant weight loss—as much as 25 pounds or more—and malnutrition.

Hopefully, with time, careful evaluation and prevention methods, we can beat the disease.

For more information on pancreatic cancer information, donations, or other ways to get involved, contact the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCan) at http://www.pancan.org.