Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month - Nov. 21 Is World Pancreatic Awareness Day

by Jane Ashley

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States — surpassing breast cancer — and is expected to surpass colon cancer deaths in 2020. Cancer deaths for other kinds of cancer are decreasing. 

Pancreatic Cancer Ribbon Vector 3124916

Unfortunately, death rates are increasing for pancreatic cancer; in fact, survival rates are virtually unchanged in the last 40 years.

Why? What can be done? Let’s learn more about why pancreatic cancer is so deadly.

Statistics

An estimated 56,770 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year — more than 150 per day face this devastating diagnosis.

The disease affects slightly more men than women. Pancreatic cancer cases are about 25 percent more common among African-Americans than Caucasians.

While statistics refer to the general population and not to any particular individual, statistics are rather grim for pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is often called a “silent killer” because it doesn’t cause many early symptoms. So it’s diagnosed later than other kinds of cancer — over half of patients are diagnosed after their pancreatic cancer has spread to distant parts of their body.

To date, there is no effective screening test for pancreatic cancer.

More Than150 People Daily

What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is a gland that aids in digestion and regulates our blood sugar levels. Our pancreas is surrounded by our gallbladder, liver, small intestine, spleen and stomach. It’s rather small — about six inches long but only two inches in diameter.

Cells in our pancreas can begin to grow out of control and develop into a cancerous tumor. The tumor can occur in the exocrine part of the pancreas, the part that makes digestive juices to help our body digest our food in the colon. A tumor can also occur in the endocrine portion of the pancreas where insulin and other hormones are produced.

Most pancreatic cancers are the kind that forms in the exocrine part of the pancreas. These tumors occur in the ducts of the pancreas.

What are the symptoms?

Some of the symptoms are somewhat vague and are similar to symptoms for an ulcer or pancreatitis. Symptoms include:

• Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and/or skin)
• Darker colored urine (often brown, even the color of coffee)
• Lighter colored stools that may be greasy (may float in the toilet)
• Itchy skin
• Pain in the upper abdomen or back
• Burning feeling in the stomach
• Bloating
• Loss of appetite and weight loss
• Nausea and vomiting
• Chills and/or fever
• Recent-onset diabetes diagnosis

If you or a loved one experiences these symptoms for 10 days-to-two weeks, be sure to talk to your doctor. Unfortunately, some of these symptoms don’t occur until pancreatic cancer has spread to the surrounding organs or even, distant organs. Over 50 percent of patients are 

Stage IV at diagnosis.

Early diagnosis is critical to treatment success. If you or a loved one has risk factors for pancreatic cancer, be attentive to any of these symptoms and talk to your doctor about the possibility of pancreatic cancer. Updated studies show that individuals with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations are at increased risk for pancreatic cancer.

Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

Usually, pancreatic cancer is staged by whether it can be removed by surgery or not.

• Resectable. Between 10 and 15 percent of patients have cancer that can be readily removed with surgery. The tumor can be confined to the pancreas, or it may have spread to the surrounding area but has not invaded any important arteries or veins.
• Borderline resectable. Some tumors are difficult to remove when a patient is first diagnosed. However, with chemo and/or radiation, the tumor may shrink enough for surgery.
• Locally advanced. These tumors are still located in the area surrounding the pancreas, but it has invaded or grown close to critical arteries, veins or other organs so that surgery is not an option. About 35-to-40 percent of patients are diagnosed at this point.
• Metastatic. Cancer has spread to other organs, including the liver, lungs or distant parts of the abdomen. About half of all pancreatic patients have metastatic disease at diagnosis.

Pancreas Anatomy

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Every patient is different. Some patients may only need surgery while others may have chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

• Surgery. Surgery is the ideal treatment for early-stage pancreatic cancer. Sometimes only part of the pancreas needs to be removed; other times, the entire pancreas is removed. The spleen, gallbladder and parts of the stomach or small intestine may also be removed, depending on where the tumor has spread.
• Radiation. Traditional external beam radiation is sometimes used. SBRT radiation (also called the CyberKnife) may be the radiation of choice. Proton therapy is the newest type of radiation and may also be used for pancreatic cancer. A lower dose of chemotherapy may also be given along with the radiation to enhance the effect of the radiation.
• Medications. First-line chemotherapy is usually the first choice of treatment for locally advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer. Targeted therapy can help patients with particular genetic mutations. The immunotherapy drug, Keytruda, is used for patients who are MSI-high.

New treatment guidelines for 2019 have been updated in the NCCN’s treatment guidelines for patients.

Clinical Trials

According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), pancreatic patients who enroll in a clinical trial at diagnosis have better outcomes. PanCAN offers Patient Services which include helping newly diagnosed patients and those already in treatment help to find a clinical trial that may benefit the patient. Request their free educational packet to learn more about your diagnosis and the options for treatment that you may have.

PanCAN offers free consultations through its Patient Central program. When you or a family member calls, a well-train, compassionate Patient Central Associate will help you find the services you need.

World Pancreatic Cancer Day

November 21, 2019 is a worldwide day for the acknowledgement of pancreatic cancer. Our beloved Alex Trebek has stepped up to the plate and make a PSA (Public Service Announcement) about the risk facts and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. He’s one of us — he is fighting for his life, yet he’s reaching out to help others avoid his experience of being diagnosed at an advanced stage of pancreatic cancer.
Let’s all wear purple on November 21st in honor and memory of all those who have experienced pancreatic cancer.

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