November is National Pancreatic Cancer Month
Pancreatic cancer takes the lives of tens of thousands of people each year in the United States, including notables such as Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze, and perhaps even someone near and dear to you. November is National Pancreatic Cancer Month and a time to reflect on what you can do to help prevent and fight this disease, which currently has no cure.
Pancreatic cancer research is aggressive
Individuals who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—and there will be approximately 44,030 new diagnoses in 2011, according to the National Cancer Institute—have a five-year survival rate of less than 6 percent. People tend to die shortly after they are diagnosed, although some individuals, such as Jobs, survive for several years (seven in the case of Jobs).
One reason pancreatic cancer is so deadly is that it typically doesn’t cause symptoms until it reaches its later stages. Those symptoms, which include abdominal pain, jaundice, back pain, and weight loss, usually occur after the pancreatic tumor is quite large and, in many cases, has already spread beyond the pancreas. Risk factors for the disease are smoking and family history.
Unfortunately, only 10 to 15 percent of people with pancreatic cancer get their diagnosis in time to be candidates for surgery, and even then the disease recurs in 85 percent of patients. All of this adds up to a very poor five-year survival rate.
Researchers are also aggressively looking for ways to prevent and treat pancreatic cancer. A recent Phase I/II trial, for example, found that a novel drugs combination of gemcitabine and nab-paclitaxel could extend life by about 6 months.
In another recent study, investigators identified a protein that could be a reliable marker for pancreatic cancer. This potential screening test for the disease is still under development. Yet another study found that vitamin A can inhibit the growth of pancreatic cancer cells by changing the structure of the noncancerous cells that surround the cancerous ones.
Currently, treatments offered to patients with pancreatic cancer include chemotherapy (e.g., gemcitabine) and radiation therapy, and they are often administered together. Biologic agents, including a drug called Tarceva (erlotinib), are prescribed to block the growth factor that pancreatic tumor cells make.
The road to find ways to prevent and treat pancreatic cancer continues to be an arduous one, but scientists are not giving up the fight. During National Pancreatic Cancer Month, and indeed every month of the year, is the time to remember the risk factors and symptoms of this highly deadly disease.
National Cancer Institute
Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons