Pancreatic cancer is about as serious as it gets. The five-year survival rate can be as low as 7 percent. Each year, more than 55,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and more than 44,000 die.
Grim, perhaps. But not the whole story. With each passing day there is more reason for hope.
“The most important take-home point is that pancreatic cancer is not a death sentence,” said City of Hope oncologist Susanne Gray Warner, M.D. “Even when patients cannot be cured, we are seeing survival times measured in years with modern chemotherapies.”
And sometimes, patients can be cured. Surgery can remove pancreatic tumors if they're caught early enough and the disease has not spread.
Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to detect in its early stages. Routine physical exams are unlikely to spot a tumor in the pancreas, which is located deep inside the body. There are no obvious symptoms either, until the disease spreads elsewhere.
“Pain in the back between or just below the shoulder blades, or abdominal pain midway between your breast bone and your belly button, are often not present until later stages of disease,” said Warner. “Jaundice, which leads to the yellowing of the skin, darkened urine and clay-colored stools, are also concerning symptoms.”
We don't know what causes pancreatic cancer. But some risk factors are worth noting: The disease is more prevalent in people over 45. It tends to strike more men than women. African-Americans are at greater risk. Smoking, obesity and diabetes increase your risk as well. So does pancreatitis “because anytime you have inflamed cells, those cells are going be turning over more often,” said Warner. “Anytime you have increased cell turnover, you have an opportunity for those cells to escape the normal pathways.”
Some cases of pancreatic cancer can run in families. If you have relatives with the disease, you may want to seriously consider genetic screening. A rather invasive test called endoscopic ultrasound (not recommended for people at normal risk) may be able to spot tumors.
Right now there's no standard blood test for pancreatic cancer, but researchers around the world are working on it, examining tumor markers that may point to pancreatic cancer in its earlier stages.
Nearly a dozen different chemotherapy drugs are available to treat pancreatic cancer, but so far there's no single “magic bullet.” Typically, two or more drugs are given together.
Beyond chemo, there's the promise of targeted therapy; drugs that seek out specific proteins found on cancer cells, preventing their growth. And numerous clinical trials are taking place; any one of them could one day be a game changer.