Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths. It’s one of the only cancers with a 5-year survival rate in the single digits, and that survival rate hasn’t improved in almost 40 years. These statistics may seem daunting, but that’s why we’re helping spread awareness about this disease, in hopes of earlier diagnosis and better treatment options.
Why is pancreatic cancer so deadly? To answer that question, we need to take a step back and look at the pancreas as an organ.
The pancreas sits behind the stomach, next to the gallbladder and liver. It’s not particularly big but it does many important things. It produces hormones like insulin (important for sugar metabolism and a factor in diabetes), and also secretes digestive enzymes to help the small intestine to digest and absorb nutrients from food. Since it’s located so deep in the abdomen, tumors aren’t easily detected or felt until they’ve grown large enough to interfere with normal digestive functions.
Treatment options for pancreatic cancer include surgery or chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Since the pancreas is located between and behind many other organs, depending on the location of the tumor and if it has spread, surgery sometimes is not an option. Pancreatic tumors are notoriously hard to treat with chemotherapy or radiation therapy. The biology behind pancreatic tumors makes it very hard for the drugs to penetrate deep enough into the tumor to work effectively. Since the treatment options are limited, the main focus of pancreatic cancer prevention lies with early diagnosis.
Some of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include loss of appetite, sudden weight loss, yellowing of the skin, and pain in the upper abdomen. Symptoms can widely vary from person to person, and often these symptoms don’t appear until the cancer has spread to nearby organs.
Currently, there’s no routine screening test for people with no symptoms. People with a family history of pancreatic cancer can undergo genetic testing to see if they have an increased risk of developing the disease. Some new test methods have recently been developed for those at high risk of pancreatic cancer. One of them is a blood test for the cancer biomarkers CA 19-9 and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), both of which have been linked with pancreatic cancer. Another method is an endoscopic ultrasound, which can help detect smaller tumors before symptoms arise.
With November being pancreatic cancer awareness month, we want to not only raise more awareness about the disease, but to also raise our understanding about pancreatic cancer. This disease is an underfunded research area, and we need more understanding in both the public and medical communities in order to advance screening methods.
November 13th is World Pancreatic Cancer Day (WPCD) and we’re encouraging everyone around the globe to get involved somehow – even if that’s just wearing purple and posting a selfie. Here are some extra ways to get involved in the US and in the UK.
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