Pancreatic Cancer Facts
Heartbreak of Pancreatic Cancer
I recently attended a funeral for a 32 year old man that died of pancreatic cancer. This horrid disease is most often diagnosed when a patient is already in stage 4, which is the worse stage. This is due to the lack of symptoms.
His girlfriend, mother and 50 other family members attended his funeral, and I could not help but think after all the advances in medicine this is an area where advances are clearly absent. Certainly, 32 years old is too young to die.
November is pancreatic cancer month and their ribbon is purple. Each group of five people held a small purple ribbon at the funeral.
Typical Prognosis of Pancreatic Cancer
The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen, which controls blood sugar and secretes enzymes that aid in the digestion of food. Most of the people diagnosed with this disease do not survive, even when it is diagnosed earlier.
It is an aggressive cancer that quickly spreads to the liver and other areas of the body. Symptoms do not typically appear until the cancer has already advanced, so only four percent of patients live beyond five years.
Some Earlier Warning Signs
The pancreas is only four to six inches long and shaped somewhat like a tadpole. The tail end of the pancreas produces insulin, but tumors are rare in that area. The larger end (or head) of the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes, and exocrine tumors in that area are more common but more difficult to detect.
Early Warning Signs of Pancreatic Cancer
Possible Signs of Cancer
There are some possible signs of cancer and it is good to be aware of these symptoms as they may save your life.
These are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer:
- Diabetes with a sudden onset – endocrine tumors are rare but would cause this effect
- Sudden and unexplained weight loss, sometimes due to the inability to digest fatty foods
- Skin or white of the eye turning yellow – caused when the cancer has blocked the bile duct in the head of the pancreas
- Smelly, pale, floating stools – due to the loss of digestive enzymes, so the body is unable to digest fatty foods
- Dark, tarry stools – caused by upper intestine bleeding
- Fatigue and weakness
- Skin of the palms and sole of the feet become itchy, which is due to bilirubin from the liver
- Loss of appetite approximately six to eight months before typical diagnosis
- A change in taste – some people suddenly lose their taste for coffee or alcohol
- Abdominal pain – described as a gnawing pain, not a sharp cramp or ache, and it radiates toward the back, plus it goes away when leaning forward
- Enlarged gall bladder – the blockage in the bile duct may cause an enlargement in the gallbladder
Famous People Who Died of Pancreatic Cancer
Most of us are aware that Steve Jobs of Apple Computers recently passed away from this disease. No amount of money can cure this disease.
Of course, we remember Michael Landon, Patrick Swayze, astronaut Sally Ride, Luciano Pavarotti, Donna Reed, Dizzy Gillespie and many others. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice also had a cancerous tumor removed early and appears to be in remission.
Each year there are approximately 45,220 new cases diagnosed, and 38,460 deaths according to the National Cancer Society.
Michael Landon - Died Too Young
Obtaining an Early Diagnosis
If you have some of the symptoms, document them, and see a physician. The doctor will probably schedule some specific tests, as an ultrasound or CAT scan can diagnose this disease. A biopsy may follow an abnormal result to further diagnose cancer.
In addition, there is a new blood test (CA 19-9), which is a biomarker for this cancer, however, it often takes too much time for the CA 19-9 to reach a detectable level to diagnose the disease during the early stages. Ruth Bador Ginsburg got a CAT scan early and had surgery, so she is one of the lucky ones.
What Causes Cancer?
Cells of the pancreas develop mutations in their DNA, which cause the unhealthy cells to rapidly grow. They also live longer than the normal healthy cells. Some of these can be changed if you so choose.
The risk factors for this disease include:
- Being African American
- Pancreatitis (chronic inflammation)
- Family history of genetic markers, like BRCA2 gene mutation and FAMMM
- Personal family history of this disease
Procedures and Complications
Sometimes the doctor will place a stent in the bile duct to keep it open, and there are times a surgery will be necessary to create a new way for the bile to flow from the liver to the intestines.
Pain can also be problem if a tumor presses on abdominal nerves, in which case radiation therapy may be used in addition to pain medication.
A bowel obstruction is another possible complication that may require a stent or even surgery. Vomiting and nausea may cause further weight loss.
Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer
Any treatment will depend on the location and the stage of the cancer. Age, overall health and personal preference will all impact the treatment. The main goal is to eliminate the cancer, but if that is not possible, trying to stop the spread of the disease is the next goal.
Surgical options are infrequent since most patients are diagnosed too late. However, when the cancerous tumor is located on the head of the pancreas there is a surgical procedure used, which is called the Whipple procedure.
It is a difficult surgery, and the recovery takes several weeks. Surgery is sometimes performed on other areas of the pancreas as well, but it is important to have a well-experienced surgeon for these surgeries on the pancreas.
Radiation may be used prior to surgery or following surgery. Chemotherapy is also a common treatment and may be used in conjunction with radiation.
Homeopathic and Alternative Treatments
Alternative treatments are often used as a supplement to traditional therapy. Some of these therapies include acupuncture, herbal medicine, folk medicine, particular diets, faith healing, chiropractor, naturopathy, massage and music therapy.
New Clinical Studies
Scientists have learned more about the DNA causing the pancreatic cancer when there is no family history. Surprisingly, in these cases the cancer cells initially grow slowly over a three year period. Researches are working to develop tests to detect these cells.
The bulk of the research is focused on new combinations of chemotherapy. Since scientists have learned that pancreatic cancer cells are different from normal cells, they are developing new drugs that specifically target these cancer cells.
Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rate
The American Cancer Society ranks all four stages of pancreatic cancer with a one year survival rate at 20 percent and a five year rate of only four percent. Patients with smaller tumors when diagnosed have a better prognosis.
As this is such a difficult disease, much of the treatment is focused on pain relief. The patient and their family need a great deal of emotional support as well until science develops an effective cure.
The copyright, renewed in 2018, for this article is owned by Pamela Oglesby. Permission to republish this article in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.