Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month is Here, Take Action

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Given the recent research indicating that pancreatic cancer may grow more slowly than previously believed, it is timely that National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month (November) is nearly upon us. Together they are a reminder that everyone can continue learning more about and take action against this deadly disease.

Pancreatic cancer is a major health challenge

The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cancer killer in the United States. The ACS’s 2010 estimates for pancreatic cancer in the United States are 43,140 new cases and 36,800 deaths. The lifetime risk of having pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 72 and is similar for both men and women. The five-year survival rate is 5 percent.

Pancreatic cancer is often referred to as a silent disease because symptoms typically are not apparent until later stages of the disease. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network notes that symptoms commonly leading to a diagnosis can include jaundice, abdominal pain, back pain, unexplained weight loss, and loss of appetite. Individuals who have advanced pancreatic cancer may also experience blood clots and ascites (abnormal accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity). Additional symptoms such as weakness, digestive problems, fatigue, and depression can occur at any time.

Currently there are no known ways to prevent pancreatic cancer. However, the American Cancer Society notes that smoking is a major risk factor, with about 10 percent of cases believed to be caused by this habit. Dietary factors such as fructose and meat consumption have been linked to the disease as well.

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The pancreas has two types of cells, exocrine and endocrine, and 95 percent of pancreatic cancers affect the exocrine cells, which produce enzymes for digestion. Five percent of pancreatic cancer affects the endocrine cells, which produce hormones such as insulin and glucagon.

Treatment options for pancreatic cancer depend on the stage of disease, but overall they include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, biological therapies, and complementary therapies. Patients often undergo more than one type of treatment, and individuals should also discuss with their healthcare providers the possibility of participating in a clinical trial.

Currently only three drugs have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of pancreatic cancer. In November 2005, the FDA approved a targeted therapy drug called erlotinib (Tarceva) in combination with the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine (Gemzar) for advanced pancreatic cancer that cannot be removed surgically. Targeted therapy uses drugs to attack specific aspects of cancer cells with little harm to healthy cells.

Two FDA-approved drugs for standard pancreatic cancer treatment are gemcitabine and fluorouracil (5-FU). Various clinical trials are underway to investigate other chemotherapy drugs and drug combinations.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network offers patients and their families, friends, and the general public information about this devastating disease and steps that can be taken to live with and fight it. You can also learn more about events associated with National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month on its website. Various awareness raising events sponsored by hospitals and health organizations will also be held around the country.

SOURCES:
American Cancer Society
Pancreatic Cancer Action Network

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